It started with the formation of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. Then, the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. Between 1993 and 2000, the NHL added or altered ten of the league’s thirty franchises. Teams moved and formed to satisfy a basic criterion of a sports league’s survival: in the event that teams habitually earn net losses, they should either move to a more sustainable market or be contracted. In today’s NHL, it is no secret that most of the teams that are in trouble reside in the southern part of the U.S. Not only does a return northward for these displaced teams make sense culturally – it’s also the only fiscally responsible option that the NHL has left. The league’s insistence on buoying its financially-strapped southern state stagnations has and will continue to cost it publicity, revenue, and most importantly fans.
Much has been made recently of the Phoenix Coyotes’ financial situation. Since moving from Winnipeg in 1996, the team has yet to turn in a profitable season. Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie had his attempt to purchase the team and move them to Hamilton, Ontario thwarted by a U.S. judge in 2009. Recently, the NHL secured a deal with principal investor Matthew Hulsizer to keep the NHL’s dream of hockey in the desert on life support. “It has always been the league’s objective to secure ownership that will ensure the Coyotes’ long-term future in Glendale, [Arizona],” said Bill Daly, NHL Deputy Commissioner. However, the team’s 57.4 per cent home attendance figure asks the question: Why?
The recently-for-sale Atlanta Thrashers are following in the footsteps of the Coyotes. While NHL revenues have been on the rise, it is in spite of the burden placed on the league by teams south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Six of the bottom nine teams in attendance in the ’09-’10 season were southern teams. The league’s migration to the South has all taken place under Commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch after he left his post as Senior Vice-President of the NBA to run the NHL in early 1993. Bettman, at the behest of league owners, was expected to expand hockey’s reach, quell labour disputes, and ensure financial stability league-wide. Two team bankruptcies and two work stoppages later, it suffices to say that the NHL’s dream of success across the entirety of North America is simply a bridge too far.
While franchises such as Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes are prime candidates for relocation, the NHL’s actions with Phoenix and Atlanta make the likelihood of a move slim. The league’s efforts to cement floundering teams in non-traditional hockey markets have been questioned by Canadian and American fans alike and many wonder if hockey as a whole will suffer for it. Bettman’s unbridled enthusiasm in retaining southern expansion has seen the league turn its back not only on stable ownership, but more importantly on hockey starved fans. The financial muscle from even a couple of teams relocating north would greatly increase league-wide financial security.
There is no denying the abundance of fans in the North that are being neglected given the respective lack of NHL franchises. The NHL now has an obligation to itself and its fans to return hockey to markets that can not only support it, but allow it to thrive. That can only happen if the league office’s blinders are removed.