With teams like the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and the Tampa Bay Lightning – who in spite of a 2004 Stanley Cup win are reportedly borrowing from themselves to pay their players – it seems a good time to check on the health of so-called sunbelt hockey.
Despite growing up in Boston Bruins territory, being a Bobby Orr fan as a small child, and attending a high school that had both junior varsity and varsity hockey teams, I only started following the NHL in earnest about 10 years ago, when I started playing the sport myself.
It was actually the 1998 women’s Olympic ice hockey team that got me re-interested in the sport. Working for a company that had a box at the San Jose Sharks’ home arena enabled me to follow it post-Olympics. I am a beneficiary, one could say, of sunbelt hockey (and a Canadian CEO).
I’m also a promoter of amateur hockey-especially adult beginner and intermediate hockey-who can report, anecdotally, that e-mails and comments from newly-minted players in the southeast went up on my hockey blog directly following the championship seasons of the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And yet I can’t help thinking that the NHL needs fewer teams, not more. Thirty teams is a LOT. It’s the same number of teams as in all of Major-League Baseball, in case you were wondering-and baseball is America’s game. Hockey is Canada’s. But putting aside the baffling fact that U.S. NHL franchises outnumber Canadian ones 4:1, I have a hard time understanding how 30 teams can possibly be profitable. Certainly, all 30 can’t be good.
Which brings us back to the sunbelt, and its incompatibility with ice. Do we really need teams in Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, AND Ft. Lauderdale? (Personally, I’m not sure we need any NHL teams in Florida, much less two of them.) Does the Los Angeles area alone need two teams? Certainly Arizona could do without, don’t you think?
I understand and support Jim Balsillie’s bid to bring an NHL team (specifically the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes) to Hamilton, Ontario-an area that appears to have more than enough hockey fans to support a franchise. What I absolutely don’t want to see is the kind of dealmaking that finally brought hockey back to Minnesota… but only by adding a team to the league (and leaving the former Northstars in Dallas). In fact, what I’d prefer is a 3-for-1 deal where Balsillie gets to build his Hamilton team from the remains of the Coyotes, Panthers, and Predators… and maybe a Lightning and a Thrasher or two.