Whatever Happened to the NHL? Part 2

By Derek Rosenfeld

Continuing our discussion on the financial and image problems that face the National Hockey League (NHL), a former fan of the NHL during the 1970s and ’80s who asked to remain anonymous summed up his feelings toward this new breed of NHL by proclaiming, “Sunbelt ice hockey? I always wondered whether the NHL GAINED more fans in markets such as Nashville and Phoenix or have they ABANDONED more fans than they have gained in cities such as Winnipeg, Quebec City, and even Hartford.”  


Photo montage created from images found on Wikimedia Commons. Photo credits, top left to right: Resolute; Arnold C; Resolute. Center photo by Brooke Novak. Bottom, from left to right: Saruwine; Sean Russell of Knoxville, TN; and Ivan Makarov.

He continued, “Plus, there are too many teams, and too many of those teams make the playoffs, making October through March just an extended counter to baseball’s spring training. Once ‘winter training’ is over, the games then extend well into June. By then, Americans are immersed in baseball, motorsports, golf, and the NBA finals.” However, the fan also took a more optimistic view of the defections. “Perhaps the NHL realizes that they have nothing to lose by staying out of Canadian markets; the game will ALWAYS be huge above the border.”
From a financial standpoint, a finger of blame on hockey’s recent troubles can be pointed at North American business practices, which, in the case of the NHL, looked to capitalize on untapped American markets that simply desired any type of professional sports franchise. Regardless of the long-term issues, there was a lot of money to be made in the short term on the novelty of a new NHL team. Merchandising and ticket sales would see a quick boom and then taper off as the team settled into its niche in the city. This seems to be coming true in most of these newer markets. 
Also important to note is the league’s inability to sustain superstar salaries. I personally believe that, in an attempt to make a move on the other three sports, contracts skyrocketed to nearly nine figures for the game’s greatest players, highlighted by Alexei Yashin’s 10-year, $87.5 million contract from the New York Rangers in 2001. These were done almost as a public relations move, as athletes such as Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez, and Tiger Woods began commanding unheard of mega-million-dollar contracts. Simply put, new NHL owners wanted to have their own megastar salaries to justify the sport’s importance to the cultural landscape. The infamous NHL lockout of 1994, which was fought over the salary cap (the total amount of money a franchise can spend on players) and which shortened that season to 48 games, exacerbated the eventual moves of Quebec to Denver and Hartford to North Carolina.
Although it is easy to blame the current economy on hockey’s woes, a look at some of the recent contracts handed out to the stars of other sports says that the money is indeed available. Major League Baseball pitcher Roy Halladay received an $80 million contract extension from the Philadelphia Phillies after he was traded to them in 2009, while the New York Yankees’ entire 2010 team payroll is just over $206 million,3 with $33 million going to third baseman Alex Rodriguez alone; the National Basketball Association’s LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Amar′e Stoudemire all signed $100+ million contracts over this past summer; and National Football League quarterback Eli Manning received a $97.5 million contract extension from the New York Giants in the summer of 2009. At $10 million (part of an 11-year, $85 million contract he signed in 2008), the highest 2010-11 NHL salary belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Vincent Lecavalier. This seems slight in comparison to the rest of the Big Four, but with the NHL’s current troubles, it only magnifies the disconnect between the popularity and marketability of hockey and the other pro U.S. sports.   
In 2010-11, the high-end salary cap is currently at $59.4 million, where no one player is allowed to take up more than 20 percent of his team’s cap space. The New Jersey Devils, winners of three Stanley Cups in the past 15 years, are now struggling mightily after signing Ilya Kovalchuk this past summer to a 15-year, $100 million contract (after having a 12-year contract for the same money negated by the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement). On October 11, the team received much criticism for dressing just 15 players for a game because, minus a few players suspended for fighting, they did not have room under the salary cap to replace them.
In Canada, there is hockey, and then there is everything else. It is religion there, and the spate of defections of some of hockey’s most beloved franchises in the mid-’90s, such as the Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, and aforementioned Minnesota North Stars and Winnipeg Jets to warmer climates is now finally being felt. As of this writing, only six of the 30 NHL teams, just 20 percent, are from Canada. There is much recent talk about returning the Coyotes back to Winnipeg, where recent exhibition games held there drew crowds of more than 100-percent arena capacity, something the league surely has taken a good, hard look at.
One telling example of how far pro hockey has fallen off the U.S. sports radar occurred when the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the “Original Six” NHL franchises, ended a 49-year championship drought by beating the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals in June. Sports Illustrated, arguably the most well-known sports publication in the nation, ran only a blurb at the top of the front cover of the corresponding issue, instead bestowing the cover to MLB pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg. (An Illinois-only edition of the mag did indeed feature the team on its cover.) This did not seem very appropriate for the awarding of what is considered the most sought-after trophy in all of sports.
Through a combination of greed, shortsightedness, and a desire to turn a quick profit by transforming a once-proud league into something it could not be, the sport of pro hockey has outlived its usefulness in many of the places where the best in the world now play. For the owners of these franchises, who now must contend with consistently empty arenas and a dwindling, apathetic fan base, the chickens have come home to roost.
Again, we here at www.FireLife.com welcome articles, photos, videos, and materials from fire departments around the country to feature in upcoming “Between The Lines” columns. Please send any material to me at derekr@pennwell.com.
  1. www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=417969.
  2. http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance/_/order/false.
  3. www.cbssports.com/mlb/salaries

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is beginning his sixth season as the assistant baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He is also an infielder for the semipro North Haledon (NJ) Reds. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.

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