The Downward Spiral of the NHL

The NHL has become increasingly irrelevant to me.  About 20 years or so ago (was the Gretzky trade the edge of the cliff?) the NHL started its downward spiral.  This is not about the popularity of the league; it brings in more money in Canada today than 30 years ago when it had more franchises.  It is about losing the appeal of the game, the magic if you will, in attempting to mimic the three other major US sports leagues to increase revenue in the United States.

Maybe it is me, maybe it is the result of growing older.  I’m not a kid anymore and I see a lot more of the behind-the-scenes ugly aspects of the league.  Kids today see the same thing as I, so their jaded viewpoint may protect them in the future from having the same change of heart.

The waves of expansion started it all.  Nine teams added in 10 years, only one in Canada.  Four other teams relocated, two from Canada to the US.  Many of the new US franchises provided only better arenas and deep-pocketed owners; actual fans in the building or watching on TV did not materialize or waned after the initial shine wore off.  As many as six expansion franchises and 3 or 4 other US franchises have substantial attendance problems.  According to the NHL, all is good with their business.  In fact, the last 10 years the NHL has lost any ground in gained in the 1990’s in the US.

The past few months have been focused on the bankruptcy of the Phoenix Coyotes and the attempted purchase and relocation of the team to Hamilton by Jim Basillie.  First the NHL took the position that the franchise was not bankrupt, despite the league providing assistance to keep the bills paid this past season.  After the bankruptcy was confirmed the NHL has insisted that the team has a future in Phoenix.  Unwilling to admit to any failure the league has attempted to put a positive spin on their situation and yet it has had no effect anywhere in saving face for the league.  They kind of operation the NHL has allowed in supporting franchises, special deals for owners, and loans between owners would generate the term bush-league anywhere else yet the hockey media is very easy on the league, likely due to the vindictive nature the league would have against anyone who lashed out at it.

The utter refusal of the NHL to consider a franchise move to Canada is amazingly hard to understand.  Ignoring the spin of the league, theories are that the NHL does not want a franchise in Hamilton as it has no drawing power in the US or wishes to put its own expansion franchise in Toronto for a $400 to $500 million fee.  Additional expansion!  They need to contract first.  Only the NFL has more than 30 teams, and it is the most popular sport (in terms of viewership and playing talent) in North America.  There just isn’t enough hockey players to supply the 30 teams that exist now.  As for the drawing power of Hamilton (or Winnipeg or Quebec City for that matter), they have a team in Columbus, Ohio.  Columbus, though the 32nd largest metropolitan area in the US, hardly is a draw in New York or Los Angeles.  For a league with as much trouble as it has, having well attended games anywhere should be a priority, not attempting to place franchises in the largest TV markets.

Additional teams in the south has led to a deteriorating product because of the ice conditions.  The NHL considers this a non-issue, as both teams play on the same ice, and it is consistently bad through most if not almost all the league.  Ignoring the playing surface which directly impacts the level of play is maddening to this fan.  Would the NBA say their courts were fine as both teams play on the same one if the floor was warped and damaged?  Would the NFL say there was no impact to play if all fields were four inches of muddy soup?  But the NHL has to ignore this fact because its only purpose is to make money and it has used expansion to large, warm US markets as its strategy to do so.

The game has suffered.  Increased coverage has not helped the quality of information.  In Canada we are left with a legacy of hours and hours of endless hockey drivel on television and sports radio.  Nothing new is said, the same cliches are spoken over and over and topics rehashed until you just want to never hear about them again.  Their are fewer and fewer characters in the game, and the number of anonymous interchangeable parts on each team increased each year it seems.  Coverage for the sake of filling in hours has taken away the desire for more; now my desire is to shut it off.  Couple that with a season that is too long (a winter sport that is effectively 10 months long!) and the overdose continues.

Hockey, and therefore the NHL as the pinnacle of the profession, is driven in Canada by a national pride associated with our unofficial pass time.  No one stops to question it in the midst of the male bonding and civic pride.  I think the support of the NHL has become more about those factors, along with the prestige of attending/watching an event outside of the normal working man’s realm rather than about getting to see the most skilled hockey players in the world, to see some real talent and be there when something special and memorable happens.  That is what I thought sports was about, but for so many that is secondary to all the other attributes.

This post isn’t going to change anything.  For me the NHL will continue down the spiral.  It will still have strong support in Canada.  In the US, it may implode, there may be an abundance of franchise bankruptcies and movement in the coming years.  Even if the league contracts and expands in Canada, the same direction will be policy and not much will change.  The spiral is impossible to climb up from.  That is why it is called progress.

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