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?
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.
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:
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:
|WESTERN CONFERENCE||EASTERN CONFERENCE|
|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?