In America, the NHL has left the building


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When it comes to vast portions of the United States, the NHL is a lot like Elvis.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/03/2010 (4651 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When it comes to vast portions of the United States, the NHL is a lot like Elvis.

Even though it’s been dead for more than 30 years, yet still maintains a residence in Tennessee, every once in a while there’s a sighting.

Like the gold-medal Olympic men’s hockey final, for instance, which pitted a collection of feisty American youngsters against a heavily favoured home team that survived by the skin of Sidney Crosby’s teeth.

Yet, did anyone notice that the NHL head office doesn’t even pretend anymore that, somehow, a strong showing by Team USA at the Olympics would boost the popularity of the game in the States? Sure, the notion was mulled over by some members of the U.S. contingent, but it speaks volumes that no one can make an argument for the NHL with a straight face.

After all, it’s hard to talk with any confidence on the subject when NBC, which televises NHL games for nothing, refused to broadcast even the Canada-U.S. round-robin game live. So perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that when Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins played the New York Rangers last Thursday, the game on the MSG network earned a .96 rating — less than a Mets-Cardinals pre-season game (1.13).

Of course, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will never come out and confess that the master plan of establishing "footprints" across the U.S., which included admittedly non-traditional markets, was a fool’s errand. That’s not Bettman’s style. Besides, the commissioner has made enough owners happy (i.e., profitable) to keep his job, for which he has been well compensated.

So don’t expect a mass email entitled "101 Ways We Screw Up Expansion" out of the New York headquarters anytime soon.

But it’s obvious to anyone listening to what you can’t hear that the NHL’s Great American Experiment is dead. Do you notice that no one ever mentions Kansas City or Las Vegas as possible relocation sites anymore? Just a few months ago, all you ever heard was that those two cities were one-two on the NHL’s list. Now? Not a peep. And Kansas City is still sitting there with a brand-new arena, dying for a team.

And you’re more likely to read a story about Quebec City’s preparation to return to the NHL than Las Vegas.

Of course, putting teams in Las Vegas or Kansas City was a pipe dream to begin with, but that never stopped the league from floating the idea or pundits from repeating the possibility, without taking into account the millions of dollars flushed down the toilet in places like Tampa, Phoenix, Nashville and Atlanta.

However, a lot of that naive thinking was forever put to rest in a Phoenix courtroom last summer when the financial horror story of the Coyotes was exposed to judicial light. Now the league has been saddled with the Coyotes, who will reportedly lose $20 million this season, and last week the NHL launched a lawsuit against former owner Jerry Moyes, alleging breach of contract.

Meanwhile, the only buyer who agreed to keep the team in Phoenix — provided they could con the good people of Saskatoon out of their hard-earned money for a handful of games — has yet to finalize the purchase. Probably, and we’re just spitballing here, because the city won’t fork over about $30 million a year in subsidies.

You wonder how such out-of-control rumours about the NHL’s return to Winnipeg get started? It’s because a lot of folks are getting ahead of themselves and the Internet provides an unfettered, unaccountable vehicle to make wishful thinking a mutant virus. But that misinformation is the byproduct of the fact that: a) several NHL teams are in financial death throes and b) there are no viable U.S. markets in which to relocate them.

So maybe two and two, in all the excitement, sometimes gets added up to five. Still, if someone asks me — and they often do — about the NHL’s chances of returning to Winnipeg, I tell them it’s like the guy on the street corner with a sign that says, "The World Will End Tomorrow." Crazy? Perhaps, but chances are one of these days that guy is going to be right. It might be a million or so years from now, but…

Regardless, at least it appears that Gary Bettman’s NHL has given up the ghost. Nobody seems to be kidding themselves anymore. Even when millions of Americans can be exposed to the game on its highest level, no one is silly enough to declare it a turning point for struggling NHL markets in football-mad southern cities. And if they did, no one would listen.

Elvis has left the arena.

Randy Turner

Randy Turner

Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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