Expanding foolishness

Dan Wetzel

In the wake of a Stanley Cup playoffs that broke records for irrelevance and low ratings, with empty seats in both new and established markets, coming off the infamous “Preakness Game” that highlighted the worst TV package in sports, the worst commissioner in sports and the lingering hangover from two suicidal lockouts, what does the NHL think is the answer?


If this wasn’t the NHL, we’d think it was a joke. But as the Sports Business Journal reported, the league is moving toward adding a 31st and 32nd franchise in those noted hockey hotbeds of Las Vegas and Kansas City.

Yes, that ought to do it.

Hey, instead of trying to fix the apathy in your current markets, why not add new ones. Las Vegas may be good news for Janet Gretzky and Rick Tocchet, but since the NHL can’t beat Law & Order reruns, what chance does it have against The Strip?

Look, if the league wants to further strangle itself with expansion, why not Chicago? It hasn’t had a team since Bill Wirtz disbanded the Blackhawks in the mid-1990s.

Only the NHL could even dream this stuff up. The league needs to contract, not expand. It needs to improve the product, not disperse the talent, dilute rivalries and provide another slap at the game’s tradition.

No offense to Vegas and KC, but we've seen this act before. The few million in expansion fees isn't worth adding a couple more cities that aren’t all that interested in hockey, save the core of 10-15,000 fans who will still be paying attention once the novelty wears off.

As for Commissioner Gary Bettman, well, he hasn’t overseen many good ideas in his first 15 years on the job. At this point our only hope is that his various disasters in leadership were part of a secret 16-year plan and good things are about to happen.

A past expansion under his watch – slogan: “If you’ve got two Winn Dixies, welcome to the NHL” – gave us the Nashville Predators. This year Nashville, despite having an exciting, hard-hitting and winning team, violated its lease by failing to draw an average of 14,000 fans. The local government may have to buy the remaining tickets next year, a tremendously prudent use of tax money.

Who among us isn’t shocked, just shocked, to find out that a small market, football mad Southern city wasn’t all that interested in an NHL team after all? Yep, no one could have seen that one coming.

Nashville may get moved to the Kitchener-Waterloo region of Ontario. The punch line isn’t that Ontario has a Kitchener-Waterloo region. It’s that at this point, it’s a pretty good option.

That’s how low this league is.

At least people actually like hockey in Ontario. They just won the Stanley Cup in Anaheim, but you could walk two blocks from the arena and not know the NHL was in town. As for local TV ratings, if they had staged a Zamboni jacking, complete with low-speed police pursuit through the streets of Irvine, it’d have drawn 10 times the ratings.

This is being driven by the league’s Board of Governors (owners) who could care less about the long-term health of the league as long as they get guaranteed profit and a tax boondoggle.

Forget the best interests of the NHL; the owners want to expand so they can execute a quick money grab.

As Eric Duhatschek points out in Canada’s Globe and Mail, the rumored expansion fee is $150 million per franchise and the owners don’t have to share that revenue with the players.

This sounds like a lot, but per owner it is only about $10 million before taxes. For the mega rich – some of these guys are billionaires – that’s nothing. Besides, rampant expansion to small and non-traditional markets is what forced the league to have to fight for the salary cap that shut down the entire 2004-05 season and helped create this mess. The expansion money was Fool’s Gold then. It’s no different now.

The inherent problem is the NHL is owned and run by too many people with no respect for the game or the fans.

Not to turn this into one of those sappy baseball documentaries (although maybe that’s what we need) but to so many fans hockey remains an emotional experience: the memories and history, the old days with your dad, the new ones with your kids, the shared joy of victories, the thrill of great performers and the chills of a sport where the athletes literally walk on water.

The NHL has forced so many of those fans to voice their anger by staying away, not buying, not watching, not caring. Unfortunately, rather than get this league to change course it’s emboldened them to bleed the sport dry.

Fans are disillusioned, disappointed and disenfranchised. And what else would they be at this point? The game is great. The league stinks. We want our old NHL back; fewer teams not more, owners that want to win, not bilk taxpayers, real television coverage, not something that’s on before bull riding.

If there are any owners who do still care, any who want to save this league before it is truly too late, they need to stand up today, beat back the expansion crowd, fire the failed commissioner and buy out the deadbeat owners so they close up the dead end franchises.

We don’t need Vegas. We don’t need Kansas City. We need our league back.