The 24-team solution

All of a sudden, we feel the need to drop teams from the NHL roster. Michael Grange suggested four, but in the interest of balance, let’s drop six, for two 12-team conferences. Right now, the teams are spread out, few are shown on television, and the NHL cannot obviously compete financially in the United States with a league similarly sized to the NFL and MLB.

But this leads me to a question, one that I’m determined to answer before the next round of contraction or relocation:

If it were in the best interests of the National Hockey League to have fewer teams, why wouldn’t there already be fewer teams?

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My general belief is that while hockey teams are maybe run poorly from a hockey perspective, some of the best businessmen in North America are the ones who run teams. The NHL, under the leadership of Gary Bettman, has been dug from a niche sport popular in Canada and the Northeastern United States into a multi-billion dollar sport popular in Canada and the Northeastern United States.

There are markets getting arenas popping up that would be more suitable for NHL hockey than anywhere else. Kansas City has money, the desire for a team, and nothing to do in their sports world in the winter. Ditto Seattle, who are looking into an arena to get their basketball team back. Québec City broke ground on a new building and Markham, a short drive North of Toronto, is looking to get in on the action.

Are there ten teams that the NHL could conceivably leave behind to create the 24-team league?

According to Forbes’ franchise values from last season, the ten lowest revenue markets in the league, to move four and accommodate contraction for six, were Phoenix, Atlanta, Long Island, St. Louis, Columbus, Raleigh, Miami, Nashville, Denver and Anaheim. But Atlanta have already moved North to Winnipeg. That slots Buffalo in at #11.

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But hang on. Carolina, Nashville and Buffalo have pretty good fan support. Youth hockey programs in North Carolina and Tennessee are probably just a few years away from sending their first wave of kids to major hockey development programs, in fact Joshua Wesley was on last season’s U-17 USA Hockey National Developmental Team, a Raleigh player born in 1996, playing minor hockey with the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes.

Around the mid-aughts, the Western Hockey League saw a giant surge of players from California, players inspired by the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings and recent teams added in the Bay Area and Anaheim. The expansion program was a long-term plan that is now beginning to see benefits. As hockey grows in more places, more players will develop, and the game will be more fun.

So, fine. Let’s leave Nashville, Carolina and Buffalo alone. We’ll also cut Kansas City from our re-location plans, which also allow us to keep a midwestern team in Denver. That means the following teams will be cut:

-NY Islanders
-St. Louis

Three teams are being re-located, so we’ve determined, to Seattle, Markham and Québec, places where the NHL will make more money and the league can survive on more of a free market system.

Now we’re at 27 teams, an unbalanced number, if we’re heartless and take away the Islanders from Long Island. They’re a team with ownership issues, like Chicago was in the Bill Wirtz days, and arena issues, like Pittsburgh in the Mellon Arena days. Both teams have grown into revenue powerhouses. So we’ll keep them along for the ride, and now we’re back at 28:

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Smythe Division Adams Division
Calgary Flames Boston Bruins
Dallas Stars Buffalo Sabres
Edmonton Oilers Markham Not Torontos
Los Angeles Kings Montreal Canadiens
San Jose Sharks Ottawa Senators
Seattle Vente Lattes Québec Accent Aigus
Vancouver Canucks Toronto Maple Leafs
Norris Division Patrick Division
Chicago Blackhawks Carolina Hurricanes
Colorado Avalanche New Jersey Devils
Detroit Red Wings New York Islanders
Minnesota Wild New York Rangers
Nashville Predators Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins Tampa Bay Lightning
Winnipeg Jets Washington Capitals

Okay, so we’ve subtracted five teams and added three. The free market dictates this, I guess, but you still have no insurance against turmoil. It’s not like this 28-team league, set up to the same collective bargaining constraints against a similar NHLPA.

The teams may be from more familiar lands, but it’s homogenous. Markham makes sense for the players, as they’ll be sure to draw more league revenue, but without a revenue sharing system, where does Philadelphia see the benefits? Or New York? Markham lies in the interests of few people, but having a strong team in Anaheim makes more. You have more exposure, and hockey players growing up in unfamiliar places that aren’t known for breeding hockey players.

In short, while I’m determined to answer the question from above is a clearer manner, this is my theory for why the 24-team solution, or the 28-team solution, or all the back-of-the-envelope proposals to move teams North, doesn’t exactly work out longer term for the NHL.

How does the above 28-team league make more money for the Toronto Maple Leafs where the current 30-team format doesn’t?

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  • Danny Gray

    Am I the only one thinking this would actively make things worse for the teams at the top? As long as there are stragglers, they can justify giving the players a smaller share of the revenue pie, which will disproportionally benefit them. There are reasonable reasons why they should want to minimize revenue sharing (why subsidize your own competition if you don’t have to?), which means as long as there are teams struggling at the bottom there are sound reasons for them to advocate cutting costs league-wide (beyond just “we want more money,” even if that’s the underlying motivation). Take away the financial struggles and the league as a whole is better off, but the businessmen at the top aren’t.

    Between that and the PR hit the league would probably take in any big shakeup, plus the extra factors you point out, I don’t see the demand for it.

  • Graphic Comments


    Of course you’re right, Cam. From a self-interested perspective, it is absolutely in the interest of the NHL’s money-making teams to have a handful of money losing teams in the league. It provides the cover they need for the league as a whole to cry poverty. On the margin, it also increases the rich teams’ revenue from league-wide TV, merchandising and other contracts, with minimal cost. In fact, the only cost to those teams is whatever is required through revenue sharing, which is why they want to keep this as minimal as possible.

    On the flip side, the NHLPA obviously wants as many teams as possible because that means more jobs for their members.

    The only real reason to contract, IMO, is to improve quality of the on-ice product. I’ve said this before*, and I know my stuff is almost all tongue-in-cheek and/or outright mockery, so the underlying themes are usually glossed over, but seriously: how much better would hockey games be if 2-3 of each teams’ current fourth liners couldn’t make the NHL? That’s what you’re really talking about, when you contemplate contraction.

    I guess the contradiction I see in the NHL’s position is they like to talk like they’re one big organization and how can small market teams survive, multi-million dollar losses, yada yada yada. If this was a real issue, the logical solution would be some combination of increased revenue sharing and fewer teams bleeding cash. But the fact the NHL owners don’t want to consider either of these options illustrates the validity of the premise.

    Now, if the NHL was an actual corporation and each team was a division, you can bet your bottom dollar that they would have contracted and/or relocated teams long ago.

    Just remember: always ask yourself, “Is this good for Ed Snider?”

    PS: Are you contractually obligated to wear pants when you write stuff for The Province?