We have franchises in cities like Nashville, Tampa, Miami, Phoenix, Raleigh and Atlanta, which on paper are large markets but don't have a broad fan base. The Phoenix Coyotes are bankrupt, and even though they defied all expectations this year by setting a franchise record in wins, they still play in an almost completely empty, albeit beautiful, arena in the middle of the desert. The current economy arguably cannot sustain thirty teams all operating as if they were large-market operations.
We have small market cities with hockey-rabid fans but no NHL teams, like Winnipeg, Quebec and Hamilton; the former two had an NHL franchise into the 1990's but couldn't keep them due to the economic impossibility of competing with larger market teams.
We have a major professional league with no major television contract. A few games a year are shown on NBC (The Winter Classic, late-season games, and some playoffs), but unless you have Versus or subscribe to a pay-TV service, you can't watch out-of-market NHL games. (The post author lives in Washington DC but grew up in Northern New England... go Bruins)
I do not believe that every large market in the US can or should have an NHL franchise. Note that there are minor-league teams in larger markets like Houston (5,800 fans per game), Cleveland (6,500), Milwaukee (6,000) and San Antonio (5,250), former NHL cities like Winnipeg (8,100) and Hartford (4,200), and in cities that already have NHL teams, like Chicago (8,000) and Toronto (4,000). They appear to be doing just fine, because the scale of the franchise fits the fan demand and market share. (FYI, the AHL team with the highest attendance? The defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears at 9,500 fans/game)
Some may argue that the problem is the NHL, and not the sport of hockey itself. This is a valid argument up to a point. Compared with the wide open, fast-paced winter Olympics that millions watched as the US and Canada battled it out in epic fashion, the NHL itself has arguably stagnated into defensive-minded neutral zone traps. Who wants to see 1-0 or 2-1 games, when only a generation ago we had Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito, and Bobby Orr.
But the sport of hockey itself has built-in limitations. Gary Bettman has been attempting to nationally market a game with regional appeal. The other three major American sports, baseball, football and basketball, are much easier to market nationally. Just hang a backboard over the garage and you can play basketball. Get a glove, a bat, and a ball, and play catch in an open field. Grab a football and pass in the backyard. You can do all three virtually any time of the year. Hockey? You need a rink, or you need a frozen pond - good luck finding either in ready supply below the Mason-Dixon line. It's a lot cheaper for communities to build athletic fields and basketball courts than an indoor hockey rink. So can one really be surprised that Raleigh and Tampa aren't hockey-crazy, even when both won a Stanley Cup within the last decade?
I do believe that a city that wants a professional hockey franchise should have one, provided that it's sustainable. But it's folly to expect that an expansion franchise can be created in, say, Kansas City and compete with the elite NHL franchises. Kansas City briefly had a team in the early 70's (the Scouts) but couldn't win a game, fill the stands, or turn a profit; they re-located twice and now are thriving as the New Jersey Devils. There's no middle ground between the NHL and AHL for struggling large-market teams and over-acheiving small-market teams.
I propose that the NHL and AHL merge and re-organize into a multi-tier promotion/relegation confederation, similar to English Soccer. The teams with the largest markets and largest fan bases can thrive playing each other, as would the mid-level markets, and smaller markets. Teams in smaller markets that grow in success and support can be promoted to higher tiers, underperforming large-market teams would be relegated. In theory, it would evolve into a synthesis of market size, fan support, player talent, and the depth of the ownerships group's finances.
The teams that qualified for the playoffs in the previous season would become the NHL Champions Conference. The teams that did not qualify would become the NHL Challengers Conference. Dividing the conferences geographically into East and West Divisions, next season's divisional alignment would look like this:
|East Division||West Division||East Division||West Division|
Detroit Red Wings
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils
Los Angeles Kings
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Tampa Bay Lightning
San Jose Sharks
Toronto Maple Leafs
St Louis Blues
This is essentially a larger-scale version of what the NHL was in 1967 when it doubled from six to twelve teams. The weaker expansion teams were in one division, and the original six were in the other. Where they went wrong was seeding the playoffs so that the finals placed an expansion team against seasoned and established teams, which led to the St Louis Blues getting swept in the finals three years in a row. Yawwwn.
The teams would play an 80-game schedule. The Champions League would play the 7 teams in its own division 4 times, the 8 teams in other division 3 times, and the 14 teams in the Challengers conference twice. The Challengers would play a similar 4/3/2 slate, plus 3 extra intra-conference games to total 80.
The regular season games would be played exactly as they are now, i.e. 5 minute sudden death then a shootout, except that there would be 3 points available: 3 for a regulation win, 2 points for overtime or shootout win, 1 point for an overtime or shootout loss, and no points for a regulation loss.
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
I would overhaul the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the following manner, largely dispensing with geography:
Qualification: The top six teams in each Champions Conference division and two top teams in each Challengers Conference division would qualify for the postseason. The qualifying teams would play in the Champions Conference the following season, the non-qualifying teams in the Challengers Conference, creating a built-in relegation/promotion system.
Seeding: Four pools would be created of four teams each; Pool 1 would consist of the two 1st and 2nd place Champions Conference teams, Pool 2 would consist of the two 3rd and 4th place teams, Pool 3 the two 5th and 6th place teams, and Pool 4 the four teams from the Challengers conference. One team would be drawn from each pool to create Groups A-D, adjusted so there are no more than two teams from the same division in each group.
Round One (Round Robin): Each team plays four games (2h/2a) against the teams in its playoff Group (12 possible games in all), with 5-min overtimes, shootouts, and 3/2/1/0 point systems as in the regular season. The team in each group with the most points moves to the semifinals. As the round progresses, matches between teams who are both mathematically eliminated from finishing in first place are cancelled.
Round Two (Semifinals): Opponents are determined at random, with home ice to the team with the better head-to-head record. Best-of-seven series with unlimited sudden-death overtime until a goal is scored. The winners then play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Round Three (Finals): Best-of-seven, home ice to the team with the better head-to-head record.
WHITHER THE AHL?
The AHL could conceivably be divided into upper and lower tiers. Based on this year's playoff qualifiers, it could look like this:
AHL Champions Conference
East: Albany, Bridgeport, Hershey, Lowell, Manchester, Portland (Maine), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Worcester
West: Abbotsford (Vancouver area), Chicago, Hamilton, Manitoba (Winnipeg), Milwaukee, Rochester, Rockford (Chicago suburbs), Texas (Austin area)
AHL Challengers Conference
East: Adirondack (Glens Falls), Binghamton, Charlotte*, Hartford, Norfolk, Providence, Springfield, Syracuse
West: Grand Rapids, Houston, Lake Erie (Cleveland), Oklahoma City*, Peoria, San Antonio, Toronto
* - Expansion teams set to begin play in 2010-11 season
Either on a regular basis or via an official challenge or appeal, high-ranking teams in the Upper AHL tier can vie with the low-ranking Challengers Conference teams for promotion/relegation. Teams in former NHL markets like Cleveland, Hartford and Winnipeg can get back into the NHL. The Toronto Marlies could vie for the Stanley Cup alongside (or instead of) the Toronto Maple Leafs!
Expansion teams would apply to the League, which would determine its viability in terms of market share, potential fan base, and the financial state of the ownership group, and place the team accordingly in either the AHL tiers or the Challengers Conference (no expansion team would be added directly to the Champions Conference). Viable teams could be created and survive in markets like Las Vegas, Kansas City (also a failed NHL franchise city), Portland (Oregon), or Seattle.
The higher the tier, the higher the salary cap.
ESPN would (hopefully) carry Champions Conference games. Versus can still have Challengers Conference.
Challengers Conference teams get first choice in the annual entry draft, followed by the Champions Conference. Undrafted players can sign with any team in the NHL/AHL. The AHL teams can still have player development "Farm team" relationships with NHL teams pending league approval.