Before I go into my diatribe on the NHL, I have some good news: I can’t reveal it until next week, but keep checking my site for the news. I’ll post it next week.
Some people more qualified than I have waxed poetic already on the topic of What’s Wrong With The NHL. Sure, it’s kind of redundant to mention the problems of a league so deeply screwed up that it may all end next September in a vicious, nasty players’ strike or owners’ lockout. This time, it won’t be a short work stoppage. It will be the kind of strike/lockout that sports historians, columnists and writers will talk about for years to come. It could last half the season, the whole season or maybe even two seasons. But it is a conflict that has been brewing for sometime now.
Yet how did it come to this point? How did the NHL and the NHLPA manage to allow professional hockey to decend into a state of fiscal madness, a league close to the point of no return? Here’s the very abridged version of how things have gotten so bad for a sport that was supposed to be the wave of the future in North American sports, at least back in 1993 when Americans were genuinely interested in hockey.
1) A badly designed and hastly drawn-up expansion plan. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman used to be considered the antidode to former commish John Zeigler; a visionary with new approach to how the NHL is run. That was a lie.
Turns out one of Mr. Bettman’s “brilliant” ideas was to expand into previously untapped markets. In theory, this is a terrific example of capitalism working to the advantage of the consumer. The only problem? What happens when the novelty wears off and the market dies out? The result? Half-filled arenas, no local television coverage, few merchandising sales and an inability to capitalize on pre-existing fan support, which creates a fiscal crisis in small market teams. The prototype for this situation was Bettman’s “Southern Strategy,” in which the NHL expanded into markets hardly known for their love of ice hockey: Nashville, Columbus and Phoenix to name a few. These teams are all losing money.
2) A wildly imbalanced division in market resources and revenue. The NHL has virtually no forms of capping salary increases relative to economic inflation. Other than the rookie salary cap (which isn’t effective at containing salary increases beyond the scope of the rookie cap), the NHL has not installed a salary cap or even a meaningful luxury tax to prevent massive revenue disparities between big market teams like Toronto, the N.Y. Rangers and Vancouver, and small-market teams like Pittsburgh. This has meant that high-priced talent has blown the coup to big markets that can afford the payouts and has left teams like Pittsburgh at a significant competitive disadvantage. The result? The prices for the services of free agents has skyrocketed between teams that can afford them and forced out small markets altogether from free agency competitions. Major League Baseball suffers from the same problem but it, at least, managed to overcome the fears of another labour stoppage last season by creating a luxury tax – the first step towards an eventual salary cap. NHL players are stridently opposed to any salary restriction protocols.
3) No television deal of any consequence. Another one of Gary Bettman’s promised initiatives was to get the NHL a hockey deal outside of the CBC or TSN. He got the league a deal with ESPN and ABC, but those contracts are now up and it looks like ESPN will want a much smaller deal with less financial obligations to the league than in the past. No major U.S. network will pick up the NHL on a regular basis, which makes it impossible to break into the lucrative U.S. market. Moreover, that TV deal money provides the league with more revenue – no TV deal, no advertising spin-offs, no money.
4) A poor product on the ice. I know a lot of hockey purists hate the idea that the NHL is a fundamentally flawed sport. But it is! The sport is no longer entertaining to the average fan, and in economic terms, what the average fan thinks is more important than the hockey czars of the NHL’s head offices in New York City.
Goals are becoming increasingly rare acts. The shift of the NHL from a grinding-style to a more skill-oriented form of play has caused two problems: one, that while forwards are increasing their puck-handling skills, goaltenders have gotten a lot better at the same time, and two, that the shift to skill-devoted play has meant that coaching strategies have changed too – more specifically, the defensive-style “trap” has created Stanley Cup winners but has made the day-to-day operations on the ice exceptionally boring. This is hockey at a zero sum game – whoever risks the least wins.
Moreover, the NHL’s annual draft is increasingly focused on size, or rather how big can the players get. This has made stick work, as well as an unhealthy tendency to use one’s stick as a weapon on the ice, and forechecking more important.
First off, a few myths need to be dissolved here. It’s impossible to go back to the “glory days” of the 1980’s when the NHL had plentiful scoring, nowhere near as many financial problems or so nostalgia-driven pundits will espouse. Truth be told, the skill level of NHL players has never been as good as it is today. Moreover, the NHL’s financial problems of today hardly compare to the late 1970’s, when the NHL’s product was in such trouble that a legitimate competitor to the league – the World Hockey Association – emerged and almost stopped the NHL in its tracks before it folded in 1979.
The only way for the NHL to get past this labour crisis is to consider the possibility that, in the insanity of the late 1990’s economic boom, the league went too far in its expansion plans, that maybe free agency needs some restrictions imposed, that the game needs to be opened up on the ice to ensure fan interest – in other words, a wholesale re-structuring of the game.
Yet neither side is going to budge on these tough issues, because it has gotten to the point where the problems confronting the NHL are so complex, so polarizing, that making even the smallest changes will be a bone of serious contention.
In the immortal words of a close friend, “it may be required to burn the village in order to save it.”
The NHL may be that village come September 2004.