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 Forbes.com 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!"
IT NEVER GETS OLD
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