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Contraction is a favourite concept of hockey writers around North America. For those who simply want to see higher-calibre hockey, it’s a beautiful dream – fewer teams means higher quality players at the highest level, something that can’t help but result in better hockey. Most recently, though, contraction has emerged as a preferred cudgel with which to beat the NHLPA.
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As one nationally-read hockey columnist sees it, the NHL is in grave peril, with one-third of NHL teams losing money hand over fist and others failing to justify the financial investments of ownership. He writes that even if the NHLPA flatly conceded everything the league was asking for today, contraction would still be on the table and that we could be looking at as many as four franchises simply ceasing to exist.
It’s a glorious argument in a lot of ways. It’s not an argument that has any basis in fact, but it is rich in unsubstantiated chutzpah.

NHL contraction in history

That’s not to say contraction hasn’t happened in the past. It has – here’s the full list of NHL examples:
Put another way: in the last 70 years (i.e. since the Original Six era) the NHL has lost one team, the Cleveland Barons. The Barons were placed in Cleveland in 1976; their home opener drew 8,900 of a possible 18,544 fans. Aside from fan apathy, the team’s arena deal was miserable; as early as January 1977 the team was in danger of folding and only an emergency loan managed to keep the team afloat for the entirety of 1976-77. By the end of the following season the team was merged with the Minnesota North Stars.
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(Interesting side point: the owners of the failed Barons – the Gund family – did not lose their appetite for NHL hockey; not only would they stay involved with the North Stars but they would eventually be awarded an expansion franchise in San Jose that they would own for a decade.)
Over the last 70 years, only one team in the NHL has folded outright, and that one during a period when the league was competing with the rival World Hockey Association and in a market where the team’s home opener was played to a below-50% capacity crowd.
In other words: contraction is a rare thing. A really, really, really, rare thing.

NHL contraction now

Looking at the historical record, for the NHL to be considering four teams for the chopping block, one of two things need to be true:
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  • Four teams need to be in comparable straits to the 1977-78 Cleveland Barons or
  • The bar for contraction needs to be considerably lower.
That’s not to say NHL teams haven’t had financial troubles over the last 70 years. They have. But when they have, the answer has been – in nearly every case – to relocate, rather than eliminate.
It’s not like there’s any shortage of markets looking for NHL teams. As the Edmonton Oilers brass has made clear by flying to Seattle and Quebec City and Hamilton, there are arenas looking for a team.
Billionaire Don Levin – the man who many consider the front-runner for a Seattle NHL franchise – talked about the possibility of relocating a team to Seattle five days after the NHL lockout started. From ESPN:
He wants in on the NHL and sees Seattle as an attractive way to get there — but maybe not the way most anticipate. With the move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg last year and the uncertainty of Phoenix’s NHL franchise, moving a franchise would seem to make sense. But he’s done the research and that’s not his conclusion. "I can tell you there are not teams for sale that are available to move," Levin told ESPN the Magazine on Wednesday. Not the Coyotes? Or maybe one day the Islanders? "My understanding is that the Phoenix deal, [Greg Jamison] has come up with the money," Levin said. "The answer to the Islanders moving is never. They’re not moving out of that market. No chance that’s going to happen." Instead, Levin’s plan centers on expansion. And he’s optimistic it won’t be long after the CBA is settled that the NHL will turn to expansion as the next phase in growing the league. "I would think three years," he said.
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Indeed, the expectation – an expectation nudged along by the NHL’s proposed realignment to four conference – is that the league will soon consider expanding, not contracting, and that a 32-team league is the plan at some point over the next collective bargaining agreement.

Okay, the, but why…

Why are we hearing about four teams being eliminated from the league? As I see it, there are two likely reasons:
1) Writers in hockey markets – particularly Canada – have always opposed the “sun belt” expansion. There’s been talk of contracting teams in those areas basically since the NHL awarded the expansion franchises.
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2) For writers who identify with the league in the current lockout (I can’t imagine identifying with either side), talking about contraction is a good way to emphasize their belief that the NHL is in grave financial peril, and to emphasize that the players should just shut up and take whatever the league sees fit to give them.
In short: it’s a combination of wish fulfillment and argument that conveniently allies directly with belief. It’s not a justifiable argument based on the history of the NHL (and indeed, all of the major North American sports leagues) or its recent actions.

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