So, why is the NHL expanding anyway?

Diluted product makes cash grab hard to defend


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Any diehard hockey fanatic will admit this is an absolutely spectacular time of year, what with the NHL’s regular season reaching the finish line and the March Sadness-Auston-Matthews-draft-lottery watch now at full speed.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2016 (2553 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Any diehard hockey fanatic will admit this is an absolutely spectacular time of year, what with the NHL’s regular season reaching the finish line and the March Sadness-Auston-Matthews-draft-lottery watch now at full speed.

An added unique bonus this spring — and just to fuel more hours of debate on sports-talk radio and social media — has been all this extra chatter about possible protected lists for each of the 30 NHL teams, what with expansion to Las Vegas now looking like a good bet.

Yes, Google the words “National Hockey League expansion” and the results total comes in at robust 1.7 million. There have already been heated discussions and poignant questions asked about whether players with no-movement clauses would be eligible as part of the mock protected lists, who might be exposed and who is a no- brainer to be safe from being plucked in an expansion draft… possibly two of them if the NHL decides to grow its map even further than Sin City in the next few years.

But a bigger question, at least from this perch, might be this:

Just why is the NHL expanding again?

Look, we don’t bring this up just because Tuesday’s Winnipeg Jets-Vancouver Canucks tilt — what with all the injuries and call-ups — had us double-checking a half dozen names on the roster sheet. I mean, Andrey Pedan? Alexandre Grenier? Julian Melchiori? Nikita Tryamkin?

Those four players entered the game with a combined 16 career NHL games between them.

Here’s what grinds a guy like yours truly about all this expansion talk, especially as someone who harkens back to the days of the 21-team NHL as the perfect number:

The NHL is already a watered-down product with 30 teams (off the top of your head, who leads the Columbus Blue Jackets in scoring? If you said Cam Atkinson, we have some lovely parting gifts for you), many of which are running every promotional gimmick imaginable to get fannies in seats.

And previous expansions have already given the league a significant footprint in the United States and grown the game from California to Florida, from Texas to Tennessee to Arizona. So would adding Las Vegas — ranked 39th by population and 42nd as a TV market — really bump the NHL ahead of NASCAR and college football on the sports pecking order?

But that’s hardly what this is about.

This is, pure and simple, a cash grab. And the financial reward is significant, as NHL commish Gary Bettman has indicated the expansion fee would be at least US$500 million. Just as a point of reference, the last NHL expansion teams — Nashville in 1998, Atlanta and Columbus in 1999 and Minnesota a year later — all paid US$80 million to join the club.

But as much as a sudden influx of expansion cash would help franchises such as the Coyotes or the Panthers — who, even when they are winning, are hardly the sexiest sporting option in south Florida — the idea of the other partners having to give up a share of the revenue pie to a new partner(s) must make them collectively gag.

And plopping down a new team in Vegas — or Seattle or Kansas City — seems like an extraordinary risk for the NHL, knowing that a second franchise in the Toronto area or a return to Quebec City would have the league cash registers cha-chinging from sunrise to sunset. But that’s another discussion for another time.

That cash influx, even if it does temporarily stop the bleeding in some markets or put a shiny finish on those franchises for sale, will hardly offer anything quantifiable to the average Joe and Jill fan on game night. What will be noticeable is how 23 new jobs — double that if two teams are added — affects the product. Even though they are written in pencil right now, the expansion draft rules likely mean every team loses one player to Vegas, which would also be an active player in free agency. That impacts the entire NHL and their farm systems.

Take two more regulars out of Tuesday’s Canucks-Jets tilt, as an example, and it would have made a game with pre-season rosters that much tougher to watch.

Hey, there’s no question the promotion of the likes of a Chase De Leo or Nic Petan from the Manitoba Moose, or the Canucks adding the 6-7 Tryamkin from the KHL’s Yekaterinburg Automobilist make for occasionally compelling theatre. But fans who shell out huge coin also deserve a return on their investment, whether it’s for just one night or as loyal season-ticket holders who are there whether their team is a contender for the cup or a draft-lottery spot.

Star power sells in pro sports, from soccer to football, baseball, basketball and hockey. And the NHL’s further dilution of the on-ice product is like serving day-old popcorn AND watering down the lager.

Expansion will put even more dollars in the owners’ bank accounts, that’s always how these things work. But it will also leave those opening their wallets wanting more.

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

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