December 29, 2009
From Us to You
An American proposes a holiday gift to Canadian hockey fans.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- A recent poll by business site ranked NHL fans from top to bottom with respect to such categories as live gate attendance and merchandise sales. While most of fans outside of Ontario will groan to hear the Toronto Maple Leafs were ranked No.1, the most intriguing part of the list were the five fan-bases that brought up the rear.

In descending order, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Atlanta and Florida supporters were the Frantic Five, adding fuel to the fire for the advocates of ending the Great Southern Experiment brought forth by Commissioner Bettman over a decade ago.

Frankly, none at the bottom were surprising, but shame on the Thrashers and Panthers fans for finishing behind the Coyotes.

Atlanta currently sits in the top eight in the East while the Panthers were in contention for the playoffs until the last week of the 2008-09 season. We're not buying the excuse that sales of Phoenix's gear has spiked because it will be collector's items/limited edition next season, although we'll admit we were a little pissed that the team store was closed by the time we finished covering a Coyotes game in Phoenix, er Glendale, this October.

The Coyotes' long debacle aside, the overall theme is that bringing hockey to non-traditional puck markets just doesn't work. It's like bringing NASCAR to Beverly Hills or mid-town Manhattan; wiser heads were needed to realize that you needed to play to your strengths, not weaknesses to grow a sport. The league benefited from the Gretzky effect to build a model franchise in San Jose and got a Cup winner in Anaheim but even the Dallas franchise with a billionaire owner has shown severe slippage since the Brett Hull stood in the crease to win the Cup (sorry, Buffalo fans.)

Florida will never be a winning market due to that pesky little sport we have here called football (and I’m not talking about the brand of football with a 55 yard midfield and 20 yard end zones, ugh.) Heck, the Lightning actually won a Stanley Cup a few years ago and they're still ranked 26th. The Florida markets lose a quarter of their season due to the invasion of Gators, Seminoles, Hurricanes, Dolphins and Buccaneers, oh my! Even if the Panthers and Lightning were serious Cup contenders, which they’re not, they wouldn’t get any play until after the Super Bowl, which at some point may be played in May given the way the NFL looks to dominate the North American sports horizon.

Atlanta, well, um, honestly, the city has a reputation for being the worst sports city in the United States and our time there did nothing to dispel that. We attended the NHL All Star Game a couple of years ago and if there was such a thing as a negative buzz surrounding an event, this had one. The Thrashers play in one of the prettiest arenas in the league, Philips Arena, have one of the game's legitimate superstars in Ilya Kovalchuk, play an up tempo, exciting brand of hockey and get Alex Ovechkin in their building three times a season but still can’t draw near capacity at a centrally located downtown arena.

Nashville is one of those markets that is too small to support an NHL franchise while the NFL Titans have no trouble filling their building eight times a year, asking the relative small sports fan population to come forward 41 times in 9 months is asking too much. Members of the Metro Sports Authority, the governing body of the Nashville Arena (another bad story their with the loss of sponsor naming rights for the building) have expressed concerns of late that the city may lose the Predators, a team not unlike Phoenix and Atlanta, apparently a contending team with good young talent that should sustain success over the longer term.

So what to do? Can anything really be done to undue the languishing of these bottom five teams? Let's take out the structural issue of the current state of the US economy and offer some solutions.

Probably the smartest move and the one that will never happen is contraction. A 26 team league would be better, deeper and even more competitive than today’s NHL. The reality is that the owners would never take the massive public relations hit nor would the NHLPA allow the 80 or so jobs go down the drain (but Russia's Kontinental League would love it, eh?). Unless there's a further meltdown in the American economy and it looks as if we've hit a bottom, this scenario is off the table.

Next move, relocation.

There are other US destinations that have varying levels of interest to bring in a franchise. I've heard some rumors that Baltimore could be constructing a state of the art downtown arena. Kansas City is hot and heavy to bring in a team to start generating revenue for the Sprint Center that sits empty most nights except for the Big Eight basketball tournament or a concert. Oklahoma City was warmed up to the NBA's Thunder and while they'll probably go the AHL route (Edmonton?) to replace the long tenured Blazers; you could have a revised Central Division with the likes of Dallas, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Kansas City and St. Louis.

No, no, no! A thousand times no!

To take teams like Tampa and Florida and put them in another football crazy part of the United States is just crazy. The NHL would be far too late to the game and while there would be an initial boost over the first two years, like there was in Nashville with Garth Brooks sightings a lot of nights, we challenge you to count the number of ice rinks in the Midwest, guaranteed it won’t take you very long.

So now what? Anyone, anyone? Beuller? Beuller?

Say, I've got an idea, a pretty brilliant one, I think. Why don't we take some teams to a place where hockey is the first, not the fourth sport in the minds of fans? A land were the population actually knows what the tag-up rule is and doesn't need "offsides" to be announced by the PA announcer when play stops. Hmm, is there such a place? I'm pretty sure there is one about 1000 miles north of the beach here in LA.

The bold stroke that is the Winter Classic was borne out of the idea of the game returning to its roots. It's arguably been the best move the league has made that wasn't made out of necessity. The rule changes HAD to be done coming out of the lockout or else the game would have all but disappeared from the sports landscape. For all those Bettman haters out there, you have to give him props for putting the game in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park on a day when most sports fans really don't care who's playing in the Capital One or Meineke Car Care Bowl. Perfect venues, perfect time spots; it's an amazing feat to say the NHL beat college football to the punch.

And that's where the destiny of these troubled teams lie, at the roots of the game. A significant amount of teams need to go back to Canada and to any city that's willing to build an NHL sized arena to house it. During the ownership fracas in Arizona, league owners were concerned about the new group, Ice Edge Holdings proposal to take the Coyotes to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and play a handful of games. I don't get the logic that would stop the Coyotes adding five sellouts to their revenue stream. Additionally, we haven't received any emails or calls from irate Phoenix fans that would miss those five games on their home schedule.

Are there five locales that could be the fortunate recipients of these red-headed stepchildren? Out of pure guilt, Hamilton deserves one from their long, drawn out waltz with Blackberry Jim Balsillie and the Phoenix (some day Saskatoon?) Coyotes.

Public officials in Quebec City are warming to the task of building a new arena and that's a no-brainer.

The banter of a second team in Toronto earlier this year could be revitalized because if there was another franchise in town, they might be the most second popular team in the league given the number of Leafs haters throughout the provinces.

Returning to the scene of the crime of the original birth of the Coyotes, Winnipeg could be another destination with some retro fitting of the Winnipeg Arena. Taking it to an extreme, if they could build and fill an arena in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, I'd be for it, maybe there's a budding rivalry there with Tuktoyaktuk in the offing down the line.

A team we haven't mentioned, the Islanders, has lost millions of dollars for its owner, Charles Wang, and public officials in Long Island still put road blocks in the way of his efforts. Isn't it time to reward an owner that has stuck by the league and thrown away a good deal of his wealth with a viable market to try to increase the value of his original investment? Do you think Quebec City puck lovers would come out to see John Tavares play every night?

The big wigs at the league offices would caution fans that a significant move by teams anywhere and specifically north of the border would further erode American media coverage and marginalize the game into a regional (read: Canadian) one.

I've got news for you, Tex, it IS a regional game. It HAS been marginalized in the States. DirecTV didn't help matters with the removal of Versus from its channel lineup in a fee dispute, eliminating two national games per week from its viewership. Unfortunately, there was no hue and cry from customers that convinced DTV execs to re-think their decision.

I've written numerous times about what ESPN execs think of the game both on and off the record, the league has no allies in the executive offices in Bristol, Connecticut. There's nothing wrong with making franchises stronger regardless of what latitude they reside. Increasing the number of Canadian franchises would increase the stranglehold the sport has on the nation. It would revive old rivalries (Quebec vs. Montreal) and create new ones (Toronto vs. Hamilton or better yet Toronto vs. Toronto) and most importantly, put the game in front of more fans that actually consider hockey their most favorite sport.

Such a bold stroke might put a football league at risk albeit the Canadian Football League. Just think of it, such a move could spawn a promotional campaign by the CFL called "Save the Rouge!"


On recent SportsDesk show on NESN, the Bruins' cable rights holder, a tribute was aired to the 30th anniversary of a night that will live in Boston Bruins and New York Rangers infamy.

On Dec. 23, 1979, after a hard fought Boston victory at Madison Square Garden, the Bruins took it upon themselves to go into the stands after some drunken fans and dole out some good old hockey justice.

For those of you too young too remember, the player that embodied the franchise at the time, Terry O'Reilly, led the charge into the seats followed by the likes of Peter McNab, John Wensink and current NBC/CBC/NESN analyst Mike Milbury.

The image that remains with most hockey people my age was when McNab chased down one of the offenders and had him on his back. Milbury added the coup de grace by pulling the fan's shoe off and pounded him a couple of times before the wing-tipped weapon was taken away. While at the time it seemed to be both offensive and dangerous, I laugh with the same vigor that most Bostonians do when they see the video.

But why, do you ask, would a New Yorker like myself laugh at such an incident?

An easy answer, it was a RANGERS fan!

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.

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