NHL International Games Are Good – To A Point

Once again Gary Bettman does the right thing to a limited point. The success of this year’s return of the NHL playing regular season games in Europe – two games by Ottawa and Colorado – to a sold out crowd in Stockholm, Sweden, prompted the NHL to double its European investment next year. At this year’s All Star Game, Bettman took the opportunity to announce that Edmonton and New Jersey will play games in Stockholm next year, while the Winnipeg Jets will play the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland.

It’s a good move by the NHL, not only recognizing the contributions from its European stars, but also with an eye to the future if one day a European branch of the NHL becomes feasible. Unlike the NFL which has staged too many games between the bottom of the barrel teams in London for the liking of British fans, the NHL is at least making an effort to send decent matches to Europe.

But Bettman’s choice of teams seem to be based on nationality, rather than current record. For Finnish fans, they get to see Patrik Laine of Winnipeg and Aleksander Barkov of Florida again. For Swedish fans, New Jersey and Edmonton have Marcus Johansson, Jesper Bratt, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefborn. Actually, if these games were based on what was really relevant, the story would be about Canada’s best young player, Connor McDavid, coming to Stockholm to play against his old Edmonton star teammate, Taylor Hall. Bettman is throwing that match-up in as almost icing on the cake.

Edmonton will also play a preseason game in Germany, and New Jersey will play one in Switzerland. All these games will increase the NHL’s popularity in Europe and enhance the game of hockey – except it still doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem that has been stunting the growth of hockey outside of the traditional “Big 7″ countries since before the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The main reason why hockey has not grown in popularity internationally is that no action has been taken to raise the standard of play in any country outside of the “big 7″. Over the past four decades, the NHL has hosted clinics, sent out-of-work NHL coaches, and now plays preseason and regular season games in Europe, but the quality of play in countries other than the “Big 7″ remains inferior.

Bettman himself recognized this problem when he revived the World Cup in 2016 and created two hybrid teams, Europe and North America to fill out his roster instead of inviting more national teams from other countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. Bettman did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ countries and “B Level” teams as was seen at the recent World Junior Championships. But that decision means that quality hockey is confined to a meager seven countries. International hockey will never increase in stature until the quality of hockey is improved outside of the “Big 7″. In particular, there are more than a dozen “B Level” countries, immediately below the “Big 7″ who could really spread and enhance international hockey if their quality of play was raised to the level where they had a real chance to win medals in important international tournaments.

Which brings this article to the third part of Bettman’s important international announcements. The NHL will play exhibition games in China again. This is money talking. China is nowhere near the level of even the “B Level” countries, but it is the biggest market in the world and Bettman wants the NHL to tap into it. Playing preseason games there may help international hockey a tiny bit in the long term but nothing like raising up the quality of play in the “B Level” countries right now. But China’s market is more important to the NHL than the “B Levels”. The NHL won’t dare snub China the way they snubbed South Korea by pulling out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The result is that we have the NHL Commissioner with the best of intentions doing many things right to help the growth of international hockey except the one thing that could help it the most, improving the standard of play below the “Big 7″, particularly in the large number of “B Level” countries, including South Korea. All the random, inconsistent, hodge podge efforts of the past four decades simply don’t work. In over 45 years, the “Big 7″ can’t even grow to a “Big 8″. There has to a concerted plan in place to improve the quality of international hockey. Until the NHL and the international powers that be recognize that the quality of play is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with, the growth of hockey will remain stunted. The NHL deserves a few pat on the backs for playing regular season games in Finland and Sweden, but they would deserve a few more accolades if they faced up to the main problem of international hockey and dealt effectively with it.

 

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NHL 2017-18 Season Second Quarter Report

It is now approximately halfway through the current season and the second quarter of this year was much different from the second quarter of last year which was characterized by long double digit winning streaks by a few teams. Nobody has had a double digit winning streak this year though the amazing Las Vegas Golden Knights have come the closest so far. Here is a summary of those who won and lost during the second part of the season.

Biggest Winner

New York Islanders

Actually it should be the Knights but the Islanders ended over 30 years of frustration when New York State agreed that a proper, new arena which will seat over 18,000 will finally be built for them. The Islanders are currently in a slump and out of the playoffs but thanks to this news, they could lose every remaining game and still be the biggest winner of the year except for Las Vegas and whoever wins the Stanley Cup. Getting a new arena means that the Islanders ownership and management can at last concentrate on building a true, contending team, starting with the resigning of John Tavares. It also means that the would-be returned Hartford Whalers will have to find either a new potential expansion franchise owner or get another NHL team to consider relocating.

Runners Up

Las Vegas Golden Knights

That the expansion Knights can actually win a playoff spot is a true miracle. That they can actually win the whole Western Conference and be a true Stanley Cup contender might be described as a miracle of miracles. This team had one of the longest winning streaks in the whole NHL during the second part of the season and have yet to have a slump. Do the new Las Vegas fans think this is normal? Their current season and fast development will be the model for every new future NHL expansion team.

Winnipeg Jets

Nobody expected the Jets to be this good. Unless they go into a horrendous slump, it’s likely they will make the playoffs and be regarded as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. They have been winning, lost one of their best players, Mark Scheifele and are still winning. But if they make the playoffs, all the improvements that most of the other top contenders have made will make it tough to take the next step.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins had not done anything noteworthy during the first part of the season largely because the hadn’t played many games. But during the second part of the season they have blossomed and now have a comfortable playoff position. Like the Jets, unless a horrendous slump occurs, expect to see Boston, now regarded as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender back in the playoffs.

New Jersey Devils

Unlike last year, the Devils have not gone into decline after a good first quarter. They are still holding on to a playoff position and top pick Nico Hischier has been everything they had wanted. Their playoff position is precarious but at least they are showing some staying power which they did not have last season.

St. Louis Blues

The Blues are still responding to Mike Yeo’s coaching and have a real shot at winning not only their division but the entire Western Conference. If they make the playoffs, have they improved enough to not only win a playoff round but get over two humps and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, something they have not done since being coached by Scotty Bowman in the 1960s?

Tampa Bay Lightning

They have been the best team in the NHL for the entire year. One big question mark, their goaltending looks solid. But the other big question is can this team stay healthy for once? As was shown last year, this true playoff contender can be undone if certain players get injured.

Nashville Predators

The Stanley Cup runners up of last year actually got better when they got Kyle Turris from Ottawa through Colorado and he has been making a significant contribution since he arrived. Is Turris enough to finally take them all the way? They will have tougher competition in the playoffs this year so their new asset is certainly needed.

Los Angeles Kings

Are they finally back? Have they finally found the chemistry again that won two Stanley Cups during the past decade? They are in position to win not only their division but their conference. If they are indeed back to what they once were, they could be the team to beat in the Western Conference this year.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

Boy did he ever get a good second quarter. In fact it is possible to say that he got a better second quarter than the Islanders and the Knights. He was in trouble when he set a $500 million expansion fee and only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec agreed to pay it. To make matters worse, Quebec’s bidder was unacceptable and only Las Vegas was considered good enough to join the NHL, leaving the league with 31 teams, one short of being able to realign into a more comfortable NFL structure (still unannounced). It seemed that if the NHL were to expand again in the immediate future, Bettman would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley and set a lower, more realist expansion fee that the investment world would accept.

Then Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman of Seattle appeared and actually set a new $650 million expansion fee record. The Seattle “approval process” is now a mere formality. And then there was Tilman Fertitta of Houston who said he would like see an NHL team in his arena which will mean another NHL expansion fee of at least $650 million if not higher. That’s probably an unannounced “done deal”. And finally the New York Islander 30 year arena problem got solved. That’s not like getting icing on the cake, that’s like getting three large iced cakes for your birthday. The two main problems left are Quebec and Phoenix.

Biggest Loser

Matt Duchene

Question: When did the Ottawa Senators go into the tank?

Answer: When they got Matt Duchene from Colorado.

How would you like to be the answer to that question? Not even P. K. Subban of Nashville, who at this time of year, last year was playing with a bag over his head because his old team, the Montreal Canadiens, were leading the Eastern Conference while the Predators were struggling to get the last playoff position, was in this kind of trouble. Ottawa traded for him because he was supposed to have the talent of number ones like Crosby, McDavid, Toews, Laine, Matthews, etc. He was supposed to be a step up from Kyle Turris who was let go to Nashville. Now after being in the shadow of Nathan McKinnon of Colorado, he was being given his own NHL team to lead. Instead of moving upward, the Senators are now out of playoff contention with almost no chance of turning things around and Duchene has contributed almost nothing. The vital team chemistry is gone and somehow Duchene is a big part of it. No one can explain why. This subject probably merits a full article.

Dishonorable Runners Up

Buffalo Sabres

At the start of the second quarter, they still had a chance of making the playoffs, but instead of going upwards in the second quarter, they plunged down toward the depths of the Arizona Coyotes. Last year, owner Terry Pegula got impatient with the Sabres when he saw the progress that teams like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton were making and fired his coach and general manager. But “cleaning house” only made things worse and the Sabres are left vying with the Coyotes for the number one draft pick.

Arizona Coyotes

They played better than they did in the first quarter but remain the most horrible team in the NHL. Actually the only interesting thing about the Arizona Coyotes is if there is going to be an Arizona Coyotes at the end of next season. The horrendous play of this season will ensure that there will be no public money coming to build a new downtown Phoenix arena for a franchise that has iced only one contending team in its entire history. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns publicly insulted the Coyotes by refusing to be partners to build a new arena. I’ve advanced the idea that the best solution will be to add two more Western Conference expansion teams besides Seattle and then shift the Coyotes with its current ownership to Quebec to get rid of the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau. A new Houston expansion team would be part of the process. Whether the Coyotes get the number one pick is irrelevant. The existence of the team is now the main factor.

Ottawa Senators

This is just a continuation of the Duchene problem that seems to be at the heart of the issue as to why the Senators are so bad. Is it coach Guy Boucher’s fault? But he had the Senators in playoff contention before Duchene came and Ottawa was Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh’s toughest playoff opponent last year. Is it General Manager Pierre Dorion’s fault? But he was not the only general manager to believe that Duchene was a number one talent. It also hurts him to know that the Nashville Predators are getting significant contributions from the traded Kyle Turris while he gets almost nothing from Duchene. He is probably in shock just like everybody else. Everything points to Duchene. It is not a happy place to be in.

Florida Panthers

They actually played respectable hockey during the second quarter but nothing, short of making the playoffs can cover up the bonehead decision of getting rid of coach Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record with the Panthers last season when he became the first NHL coach to be fired. Every time the Las Vegas Knights win, it is a blow to the Deathwish Panthers who like the Coyotes have a horrible history, seldom making the playoffs. And if Las Vegas is the model of how a desert team should be run for the Arizona Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the model of how a Florida team should be run for the Florida Panthers. The success of both Tampa Bay and Las Vegas only emphasizes how badly these two losing franchises have operated.

Montreal Canadiens

Both the Canadiens and the New York Rangers started out with horrible records, but while the Rangers recovered and have a chance to make the playoffs, the Canadiens are virtually out of the picture. They needed to start moving upward during the second quarter but have at best been just wheel spinning. They lost two veteran defencemen during the off season, goaltender Carey Price is a good international goaltender when he plays for team Canada, but is a suspect NHL playoff goaltender, and General Manager Marc Bergevin guessed wrong about P. K. Subban.

The Bubble Burst

Detroit Red Wings And Vancouver Canucks

At the start of the second quarter, both these teams which had been playing well had a chance to make the playoffs. But during the second quarter, reality caught up with them. Neither of these teams which had been Stanley Champions or contenders for so long have the talent any more to contend and now need top draft choices to rebuild. Most of Detroit’s old stars have retired and the Sedins of Vancouver are in their declining years. At least they have a legitimate excuse for why they out of contention, not like the teams listed above.

When Are You Going To Wake Up?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Mysteriously, the two time defending champion Penguins have been playing stumblebum hockey. The playoffs are certainly attainable but Pittsburgh needs to start putting together some of the long winning streaks that have characterized the past two seasons. It is too early to panic but some of the teams above them are starting to pull away and some teams from below are starting to challenge them. Maybe it is time to get a little uneasy.

Edmonton Oilers

If it is not time to panic for Pittsburgh, it almost is for Edmonton. They played well during the second quarter but not well enough to make up for their bad first quarter. And what I warned about in my first quarter report is starting to happen. At least seven Western Conference teams pulled away and cannot be caught up to and two others are poised to become that way. Only the last playoff spot is now available to them and that is now fast flickering away. They need long winning streaks during the next quarter to have any chance to make playoffs.

We’ve Seen It Before

Washington Capitals

Yes, the Capitals had their usual long regular season winning streak and now have a chance to win their usual President’s Trophy. And yes, Alexander Ovechkin has his usual pretty individual statistics. But nobody should pay attention to what the Capitals do during the regular season. In the Marcel Dionne (whoops!) Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never even made the Eastern Conference Final. So now (yawn) that they have had another great second quarter, it means almost nothing. In fact the best thing that they may have going for them is that Pittsburgh is currently out of a playoff spot leaving the door open for the Capitals to finally get to at least the Eastern Conference Final.

Minnesota Wild

The western playoff wheel spinner Minnesota Wild played well too during this quarter and now precariously have the last playoff spot. But as long as ex-coach Mike Yeo is coaching the Blues who humiliated the Wild and General Manager Chuck Fletcher with an easy playoff victory last year, it is not enough to just make the playoffs, but to go deep into the playoff picture, especially surpassing Yeo’s Blues. Every year the Washington Wild and the Minnesota Capitals play for the wheel spinning Stanley Cup. Will that ever change?

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 8: Return Of Winnipeg Was A Clear Marker Of The NHL’s American Status

Here’s a new hockey joke I’ve just invented:

Q. How do you get more Canadian teams in the NHL?

A. Start them in Atlanta.

Twice in NHL history, Atlanta had teams only to see them transferred to Canada because of bad attendance. Calgary and Winnipeg can both show gratitude to Atlanta after the NHL wore out its welcome there. Unfortunately for Canada, it will probably be a long time before the NHL returns to Atlanta. So Quebec Nordiques and Hamilton fans will have get their teams from other sources.

The transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg was the lowest blow in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to improve the status of NHL hockey in the United States and get a better American television contract. First, it was the transfer of a team from a much bigger to a much smaller market. Second, it meant that his campaign to prove to American televison networks that NHL hockey was “an American game”, took a blow. (At a recent summit of NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL commissioners, Bettman commented that more young Americans were taking up hockey.) Third, it meant that a team was being transferred from a market that counts in American television ratings to a Canadian city where viewers cannot be included. And fourth, it raised questions about the wisdom of placing new NHL franchises in American markets that were unfamiliar with hockey.

And for Bettman to proclaim that the Winnipeg arena, the smallest one in the NHL and built for Winnipeg’s AHL team, the Manitoba Moose was suitable for the NHL was very surprising. But he had no choice. No investor wanted the Thrashers, at least one that would keep them playing in Atlanta. And bringing back the Winnipeg Jets got rid of  one third of his Canadian critics. The pressure group, the “Manitoba Mythbusters” can now say, “Mission accomplished”.

 

winnipeg

But the fact that no American investor wanted the Thrashers and keep them in an American city was a clear sign of the NHL’s low status in the United States. There were no American rival offers to match Winnipeg. Even in potential good American markets like Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland there was no interest. And in hindsight, when NHL expansion was eventually announced with a $500 million expansion fee, and $10 million “consideration fee”, American investors, including Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, passed on a bargain.

On the other hand, Winnipeg had positive assets in its new owners, Dave Thomson and Mark Chipman. Thomson is the richest man in Canada so adding him to the NHL Board was almost a no-brainer. And Mark Chipman has been so popular, he was recently elected to the NHL Executive Committee. Having popular potential owners certainly made the transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg easier. Bettman himself and probably the majority of the NHL Board wants Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford back in the league. He made a tour of all three cities back in 2010 and offered them terms for readmission to the NHL if they met certain conditions. That door still remains open for Quebec and Hartford.

But it’s doubtful that Bettman and the NHL Board wanted Winnipeg back in the league through relocation. The league lost $500 million in a potential expansion fee. And seeing investor indifference in the United States highlighted, reminded everyone, especially American televison networks, about the NHL’s low status in the United States. Winnipeg was used to bail out the NHL in an embarrassing situation. Imagine what would have happened if no one wanted the Thrashers. The league would have been forced to fold the team or own and operate them like they did in Phoenix.

The Atlanta debacle could be matched in Phoenix. The NHL was forced to own and operate the Coyotes for years while they searched for a new owner. They rejected a transfer of the Coyotes to maverick potential owner, Jim Balsille and another Canadian city, Hamilton. But now there is an arena crisis in Phoenix looming and the NHL and Glendale have publicly declared they are finished with one another when either the current lease expires or the Coyotes find a new home, either in the Phoenix area or in another city.

Now knowing that the NHL wants a $500 million expansion fee, will American investors, particularly owners of or builders of new arenas invite the Coyotes to their cities? Acquiring an NHL team through relocation instead of expansion seems to be a big “bargain”. But if no American investor wants the Coyotes, even in another better American market, at the cut-rate price of relocation, it will only serve to remind everyone, just like the Atlanta Thrashers did, that NHL hockey, compared with the NFL, the NBA and MLB, is still not “America’s game”.

 

Quebec, Hartford And Winnipeg Were ALWAYS Great NHL Franchises

Right now NHL expansion (or readmission) to Quebec and Hartford is sitting on the back burner in NHL priorities but sooner or later they have to take center stage as front-running issues. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of all three cities including Winnipeg in 2010 and offered all three cities a chance at readmission on reasonable terms; a great fan base, acceptable NHL ownership, and a proper NHL size arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee then). Winnipeg is already back in, Quebec has built an acceptable arena but is stuck at the ownership issue, and now Hartford proposes to renovate its old XL Center and turn the New York Islanders into the Hartford Whalers.

There are issues about all three cities that I have written about on this blog and others over the years: I wonder if it is better to build a brand new arena in Hartford instead of renovating a 41 year old building and I doubt if the NHL will countenance the disappearance of the New York Islanders who have such a glorious history. I write about the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau who is unpredictable, has made enemies on the NHL Board, and the social and political problems of bringing back the Nordiques to Quebec City. And I still don’t like the small size of the Winnipeg arena.

Quebec

But before I continue writing diatribes about all these issues on this blog, it is well to remember why I write about and care about them anyway. That is what this article is about, not about negatives, but positives. Since I started writing on blogs during the previous decade, I have always supported the return of the NHL to Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford. Why? Because I BELIEVE in those cities because they more than meet what may be the most crucial of Bettman’s three terms, great fan base. All three cities lost their teams in the 1990s, not because they were not getting fan support, but because of ownership and arena issues.

winnipeg

You don’t have to worry about selling tickets and NHL sports merchandise in Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford or educating fans about the nature of the game of hockey, like you might in Las Vegas or some similar city which has been the choice of NHL expansion and relocation all too often during Bettman’s term as Commissioner. All three cities have deep roots in hockey and once enjoyed great rivalries with many of the current NHL teams. Bringing them back with acceptable owners and proper arenas is a no-brainer decision. Gary Bettman, he of Canadian “anti-Canadian” myth who in fact is anything but anti-Canadian, knows that too. He believes in Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford just as much as I do. He would not have made that tour, made expressions of regret at the loss of these cities, and then offer reasonable terms for them if he did not think they could be viable NHL franchises again. And all three cities would not be the bottom-ranked NHL franchises in value but would claim respectable places – Quebec in particular – in the NHL franchise hierarchy.

whalers

The Quebec and Hartford issues have to be solved soon. Bettman’s tour and pronouncements are an unofficial commitment by the NHL to bring back these teams, if they meet certain conditions. And as I have written in several articles on this blog, the NHL is probably unofficially committed to becoming a 40 team league with a realigned NFL structure. The only thing that is awkward about readmitting Hartford and Quebec at this time is that they are both eastern cities and the NHL wants to balance its conferences. But certainly there is a place for both cities somewhere in the next ten city NHL expansion.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about future NHL expansion. Last June, I wrote an article that is probably the most popular ever written on this blog listing the 10 North American cities I believe SHOULD get an NHL franchise. Almost every day since then, I have watched its readership grow, even to this day. Obviously NHL expansion is a popular topic with most fans. Unfortunately I don’t know where exactly these readers come from. Certainly Quebec City fans have played a prominent role and there may even be interest from other countries besides Canada and the United States.

When I made my choices I assumed that all the cities would meet Bettman’s terms of good ownership and proper arena. But my choices were based on his third factor, fan base. All my choices have deep roots in hockey; there would be no need to introduce the game to them, and there would be no problem selling tickets and sports merchandise, attracting local media attention, and getting corporate sponsors. The NHL has chosen Las Vegas to be one of its ten new franchises so my idealized future 40 team league will not be the same as theirs. (Now that Las Vegas has joined, I hope they do well and not become another Phoenix.)

Just for the record I’ll re-list them now. (There is the possibility that the NHL will grow to 48 teams, the next symmetrical number, so all 10 can still get in.) There are 5 top Canadian cities: Quebec, second southern Ontario probably Hamilton, second Montreal, third southern Ontario (London, Kitchener, Oshawa, and second Toronto), and Saskatoon. And my 5 top American cities are Seattle, Portland, Hartford, Milwaukee, and Spokane.

And beyond this for North America, there are a few more American cities, not the sure winners listed above, but ones where there could be a reasonable chance for success that I would take a risk on: Kansas City, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Memphis, and Baltimore. And ANY Canadian city if it gets big and rich enough would be an automatic choice. In the long term-very long term are cities like Sherbrooke, Abbotsford, Regina, Halifax, Moncton, Victoria, St. John, etc.

And if I live long enough and maintain good health, I hope to be writing about an NHL branch in Europe too. Cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are as much no-brainer choices for the NHL as Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford. But right now, it is time to wish Las Vegas all the best, add another western city, realign, and then get Hartford and Quebec City into the NHL as soon as possible.

 

PRESSURE GROUPS CAN HELP GET A NEW NHL FRANCHISE

One of the smartest things that occurred when Winnipeg and Quebec lost their franchises in the 1990s, was that their most fanatical fans banded together to form lobbying, pressure groups dedicated to getting their NHL franchises back. In Winnipeg they called themselves the Manitoba Mythbusters and in Quebec they called themselves ZoneNordiques. Both started their own websites to keep their loyal followings informed about what was going to make the day when the Jets and Nordiques would rise again, a glorious reality.

The Mythbusters and ZoneNordiques carefully play up every positive statement and action by NHL officials, potential investors, media commentators, NHL and ex-NHL players and just about anyone who says anything positive about the local market that could help reclaim their team. They vigilantly watch and wait for every sign of new NHL expansion so that their city can join in the bidding process. They try to rally public support whenever possible to demonstrate to the NHL that they are in earnest about getting their team back.

Winnipeg has already seen its dream come true. First, they saw their new arena which was supposed to be the home of the AHL Manitoba Moose be proclaimed acceptable by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. I used to feud with the Mythbusters on another blog about the size of their new arena which is the smallest in the NHL. Though I am in favor of a returned Jets, and Nordiques (and Whalers too), I believed (and still believe) that the arena does not have enough seats. I don’t want to see Winnipeg lose the Jets again because of arena problems, but the NHL is accepting their arena and I have had to eat my words. We’ll see in coming seasons if the size of the Winnipeg arena becomes a factor and if Winnipeg will have to build a new, larger one.

I have no problem with new Quebec Videotron that seats near the current NHL median of 18,500. Nor does the NHL. They showed how much they liked the Videotron by allowing Quebec to host an exhibition game in last year’s revived World Cup.

When Atlanta was ready to fold, Winnipeg was ready. They had already recruited Mark Chipman and Canada’s richest man, Dave Thomson to be the Jets new owners. The NHL liked their ownership too and had no qualms about turning the Thrashers into the Jets. But the same cannot be said of Quebec’s prospective owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau who has made bad enemies on the NHL Board. He has been deemed unsuitable by the NHL Board which turned down his application quickly without a second thought leaving the Quebec bid in limbo until a suitable owner is found.

ZoneNordiques want to see their dream come true too. They probably were instrumental in solving the first two conditions that Commissioner Bettman demanded in 2010, fan-base and arena. 80,000 fans signed a petition asking the Nordiques to be returned and they in turn indicated that they would not object if taxpayer money was used to build a new arena. It was probably a proud and hopeful day for ZoneNordiques when the Videotron was finally completed. Only the ownership factor has yet to be solved.

But they should take heart from the Mythbusters who never gave up and got through every obstacle until their dream came true. It cannot be said that the Manitoba Mythbusters were the key element in bringing back the Winnipeg Jets. But without their existence Winnipeg might still be without an NHL team. ZoneNordiques are in the same situation. If a suitable NHL owner can be found – perhaps located with their help – they too might have their ultimate day of joy.

Young Stars Are In The Right Cities

The NHL’s four newest young stars who have entered the league during the last two years, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine have all landed in the right cities. They all managed to be drafted by teams in cities where hockey is loved and they will be the focus of attention. Last year Edmonton made McDavid the number one pick while Buffalo followed up with Eichel. This year, Toronto chose Matthews first and Winnipeg selected Laine. All teams are happy with the result.

Indeed in Buffalo and Winnipeg, where the Sabres have to compete with the mediocre Bills of the NFL and the Jets are sports rivals with the also-ran Blue Bombers of the CFL, it can be said that Eichel and Laine are their cities current best professional sports athletes. McDavid shares the Edmonton market with the Eskimos of the CFL who won the Grey Cup one year ago and were contenders again last year. Matthews is coming into an environment where the Maple Leafs share the market with the contending Blue Jays of MLB and the equally contending Raptors of the NBA.

For Eichel, who hails from Massachusetts, Laine from Finland, and McDavid from Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, there is no adjustment in these hockey loving centers. But there must be some adjustment for Matthews who was born in California and lived most of his life in Arizona where hockey is an also-ran sport to come into Toronto where attention on the star players of the Maple Leafs is a constant factor. All four will be involved in their new communities during the off season, whether they like it or not.

buffalo

All four have different pressures on them. Eichel may well become the best Buffalo Sabre ever, challenging Gilbert Perreault. It is his job to lead the Sabres back to respectability to become a regular playoff team again.

eichel

Ultimate victory has eluded Buffalo since 1965 when Jack Kemp led the Bills to the AFL Championship. There was no Super Bowl in those days. Since then Buffalo has endured two losses by the Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final and four consecutive frustrating defeats in the Super Bowl by the Bills. Whoever gives Buffalo a championship in the modern sports era will be head and shoulders above the rest.

winnipeg

Laine is already being compared to Winnipeg Jet Finnish legend Temmu Selanne. In its two incarnations in NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have never even made the Western Conference Final.

laine

If Laine can take them even that far he will be acclaimed the greatest NHL Jet ever ahead of Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk. (I’m not counting the WHA days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, and Ulf Nilsson.)

toronto

Matthews can be almost be said to be a Maple Leaf Messiah. The Maple Leafs have not had a player of his stature since Matts Sundin. He comes to a team that is currently tied with the St. Louis Blues for the longest streak without winning the Stanley Cup, 50 years. The team has not even been to the Stanley Cup Final during this period.

matthews

The Leafs have had to endure two long periods of bad management and ownership under Harold Ballard and the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. Their fans are famished with waiting to have a contending team again, let alone a championship. Matthews is being asked to do what the best four Maple Leafs during these famine years, Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler, and Bjore Salming could not do, take the Leafs all the way to the Stanley Cup. There are a lot of ghosts hanging over him.

edmonton2

For Connor McDavid, there is a different kind of pressure. He is supposed to be Sidney Crosby’s heir, the best player in Canada who is head and shoulders above everybody else, Canadian and foreign, during his peak playing days. This list of players is almost continuous back to the days of Maurice Richard and everyone who is on it (Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Crosby) has won at least one Stanley Cup. And there is the additional ghost of Gretzky being the best Oiler ever.

mcdavid

If McDavid wanted a challenge, he probably got the ultimate one. Right now he has to be not only the best current Oiler, but better than Eichel, Matthews, and Laine, and everyone else in the league except Crosby. Good luck kid, you’re going to need it.

While it is great for these young stars to be in true hockey environments, it is probably not what the NHL wanted. They can always sell hockey tickets in Toronto, Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. Secretly the NHL would probably be happier if these young stars turned around attendance in Carolina, Arizona, Columbus, and Florida.

But they are where they are and as noted above, they all have sufficient pressure on them without having to sell tickets and save the existence of franchises. Hopefully they will thrive in real hockey environments. And it will be fascinating to watch how this four-way rivalry plays out in the future.

What The Canadian Census Means For NHL Expansion Part 2

In part 1 of this series on the results of the new Canadian census as far as its effects on the NHL (and CFL) are concerned, the positive results are clear. If suitable arenas and owners can be found, the NHL could add second Toronto, second Montreal, Quebec City, and Hamilton franchises right now. But are there any other things that can be discerned from the results? This part probes a little deeper into possible NHL consequences including new franchises, arenas, etc.

Nothing has changed

Before the 2016 census, the greater Toronto area could have welcomed back a returned Toronto Toros (WHA) if another arena could be built and a suitable owner found. The new census merely confirms it. Toronto, Chicago, and the California bay area are North American metropolitan areas that could probably support a second NHL franchise just like Los Angeles and New York.

Winners

1. Montreal

Metropolitan Montreal has cracked the 4 million barrier which should be proof enough that it has joined the above three metropolitan areas that could support a second NHL franchise. Build a new arena, find a suitable owner and bring back the Montreal Maroons.

2. Calgary

No large Canadian city is enjoying the rate of growth that Calgary is experiencing right now. It has surpassed Ottawa as Canada’s 4th largest city and is pulling away from both Ottawa and Edmonton, its closest rivals. It is too early to consider it as a challenger to Vancouver as Canada’s 3rd largest city but it is on the distant horizon if this rate of growth continues. The real significance of this growth is not for another NHL franchise but for a new arena to replace the Saddledome. “Calgary Next” is on the table right now. Since the city is growing so quickly, NHL tickets will become a hot commodity, and a new arena should be in the 19-20,000+ range for seating. “Calgary Next” also includes a new domed stadium for the CFL Stampeders. And Calgary is big enough and is growing fast enough to also consider getting an NBA team and a MLB franchise before making a final decision on both an arena and stadium.

3. Quebec City

Metropolitan Quebec passed the 800,000 mark and with its new Videotron arena, it is the leading Canadian city to get Canada’s 8th NHL franchise. Unfortunately it has not been able to resolve the ownership factor which includes racist issues. Find a suitable owner and Quebec gets the Nordiques back.

4. Winnipeg

After being in the doldrums, metropolitan Winnipeg is now nearly 780,000. That’s good news for the Jets who need a larger market to sell more tickets and merchandise. But the old Winnipeg arena which was around in 1980 when the Jets joined the NHL was only 15,000 seats for a population of around 500,000. The new Winnipeg arena which was designed for a minor league franchise seats the same 15,000. With a population that is now over 50% larger, when is the size of the Winnipeg arena going to become an active issue and a new, larger arena built?

5. Hamilton

Compared to the growth of Winnipeg and Quebec, metropolitan Hamilton’s growth to 750,000 is disappointing. But since the Hamilton market also includes the cities of Kitchener, Burlington, Oakville, Guelph, London, St. Catharines, etc., Hamilton like Quebec could be awarded an NHL team right now. The Hamilton arena has over 17,000 seats and the city is willing to spend $50 million to upgrade the arena to 18,500. Unfortunately the large expansion fee and additional financial compensation to Toronto and Buffalo is a deterrent to investors. Show some generosity and get this city into the NHL as soon as possible.

6. Kitchener

Metropolitan Kitchener including Waterloo and Cambridge has clearly established itself as Canada’s 10th largest city. It passed the 500,000 mark during the latest census. The longer Hamilton and Toronto remain without a team, the more a rival Kitchener becomes for a second or third southern Ontario NHL franchise.

7. Oshawa

Perhaps it maybe too early to consider Oshawa for an NHL franchise with a metropolitan population of near 380,000 but putting the third southern Ontario franchise on the east side of Toronto is a feasible option. Oshawa is one of the fastest growing smaller cities in Canada. Actually the idea has been raised before, decades ago when the small town of Port Hope was considered. It may seem laughable but building a new arena in that town as an Oshawa franchise means that no financial compensation has to be given to Toronto and Buffalo. And an Oshawa team can get fans and ticket holders from eastern Scarborough, Pickering, Ajax, Whitby, Peterborough, Belleville, and Kingston.

Disappointments

1. Saskatoon

It grew by more than 33,000 residents which is more than what Oshawa and Kitchener gained but it would have been better if Saskatoon had passed the 300,000 barrier which is what Statistics Canada had predicted. Nevertheless it is still one of the highest growth rates among smaller cities in Canada. Saskatchewan as a whole remains a mostly rural province. There are 9 more NHL franchises to be had for the NHL to reach the symmetrical number of 40, probably within the next 20 years. Maybe by the end of the second decade, Saskatoon will be big enough to grab the last franchise.

2. London

Recently at one time London had a population larger than Kitchener’s and they were neck and neck together in 2011. But London experienced dismal growth during the last half decade, failed to even crack the 500,000 mark and now sits nearly 30,000 behind Kitchener. London, which is farther away from Hamilton, and Toronto would make even more sense as an NHL franchise than Kitchener but it will not be close to getting one if its population growth remains in the doldrums.

3. The Maritimes

The good news is that Halifax finally passed 400,000. The bad news is that New Brunswick actually declined in population. So much for a CFL franchise based in Moncton. The Maritimes still remain the poorest region in Canada with small population growth. Putting an NHL franchise in a Maritime city remains a sentimental, romantic dream. For now, the best the Maritimes can hope for is that the NHL restores the Quebec Nordiques and that they market and pose as the Maritimes team as well. Hockey wise, the Maritimes are already bound to Quebec through its junior league and adding the four Maritime provinces to its overall market is good business sense for the owner and management of a returned NHL Quebec team.