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Can we begin to talk about contraction? If not, rivalries eventually will die

OK.  It will never happen.  The league won't even consider it.  The NHLPA would never give up the jobs.

But can we at least have the conversation about eliminating a number of NHL teams?

Why?  Well, it’s not because, in my case at least, that I’m anti-Florida, or believe that it makes no sense to have teams in southern California (though the argument can be made…)

No, it’s more that—despite the protestations of Leaf GM Brian Burke, who was quoted recently as saying he thinks the level of  hockey around the NHL this season has been really good—we just don’t have the talent to supply 30 teams.  (Lebron James apparently had the same opinion about the NBA recently, until the league likely told him to modify his position for public consumption.)

If we look dispassionately at the rosters of so many NHL teams, they are filled with guys who could just as easily be in the AHL.  The Leaf line-up is an example, and not an isolated one, either.  They can’t cobble together two so-called “top-six” forward lines.  They really have, at best, a good number-two line and three third/fourth lines.  That’s not to knock the Leafs or individual players.  They are all, in today’s world, NHL players.

But should they be?

I hate to get into specific markets because fans in those markets quite naturally get their backs up, especially when someone in Canada suggests re-location or contraction.  But the truth is, there are many cities where hockey is an afterthought.  Oh, I’m sure on a given night (and when they made the finals in the mid-‘90s, for example) they can fill the building in Sunrise, Florida to watch the Panthers.  But really and truly, professional hockey in Florida is not even on the same page (much less the same level) as U.S. college football, or NASCAR—or just about any other sport, for that matter.  Does anyone in Sunrise—with the Heat and the NBA right next door— really care about the Panthers?

And on it goes.  Tampa Bay
won a Stanley Cup.  That’s probably like Winnipeg winning a Super Bowl, to an American.  Except many Americans would not even know where or what Winnipeg is.  And that’s not intended as a slight on our U.S. friends.  Simply that they don’t exactly study Canadian geography in school and they certainly don’t think some small town in Canada should have an NFL team— or should be winning the Lombardi Trophy.

Carolina? Another team that won the Cup.  But is Raleigh where you really want a hockey franchise? 

?  I have no doubt if you put a great team there, people will go.  But do we really need an NHL franchise where college football is the undisputed king? 
Phoenix? I guess once they’ve paid money to see the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Suns, sure, some people even go to watch the Coyotes.  But if any of the hockey teams I just mentioned ceased to exist tomorrow, how many people would even care in a year?

Do you remember the NHL lockout season?  People in most U.S. markets didn’t even care after a while.  I remember former players being interviewed at the time, saying, if the lockout lasted much longer, hockey would simply die in some markets. 

Hockey simply doesn’t register in much of the U.S..  Sure, the "Winter Classic" drew nice ratings again but that doesn't mean there is a growing market for the sport in U.S. markets.  That game is a unique, neat "one-off".
This is not about trying to take down American teams and putting them all in Canada.  I just wonder if anyone else would really rather see a pared-down NHL, where you might have 24 teams, but with a lot more talent per team?

Imagine how good an 18-team NHL would be?  With all the talent coming in from every hockey playing country in the world, it would be tremendous.  But 30 teams?  We just don’t have the talent pool, even now. 

I would settle for a 24-team league.  And I don’t buy the “economics” argument that the NHL needs that many teams or it can’t flourish.

Cut back to 24 teams and  maybe we could get back to divisional or Conference play that makes sense.  What are the modern-day hockey rivalries?  They are absolutely transient, ever shifting.  By definition, most of the current rivalries aren’t based on any real, long-term history.  Sure, new rivalries can be catalyzed on occasion, but most current supposed rivalries are almost meaningless.   The “rivalry” between the Leafs and the Devils?  Really?  I mean, sure, for the couple of years that they played in the playoffs there was some animosity, but that was about it.

Does any Leaf fan get hopped up now when the Devils come to town?  Can most fans name five guys with New Jersey right now, after Brodeur?

Montreal-Toronto?  Believe me when I say it is not anywhere near the rivalry that it was in the ‘60s.  Not even close.  With thirty teams and the two clubs so rarely meeting in the playoffs, it's simply...well, flat.  As a rivalry it is a distant memory.  Oh, I know on game night there is some energy in the ACC—and even more at the Bell Center in Montreal.  But it just doesn’t generate the build-up and the colorful back and forth we used to get when “Toe” Blake and Punch Imlach used to commonly trade insults back and forth through the media before and after games and playoff series.

Now, I’m not advocating a return to the days when the NHL had six teams and everyone played everyone else 14 times a year.  That would seem like, well, the Canadian Football League. 

I remember interviewing Jean Beliveau at the Forum when he was an executive with the Canadiens back in the winter of 1976-’77.  During our chat, he was very strong on the notion that the NHL simply had to expand, as it did, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s— because the other major leagues had way more teams and hockey needed to keep pace or it would have looked like a minor league.

But I think we have stretched the point to the absurd.  Hockey is just not as popular as basketball, football or baseball (or NASCAR) in the U.S. and we should not have as many NHL franchises as in those other sports.

A smaller league, with a better alignment and schedule, and real, legitimate, traditional rivalries, with the possibility of playoff games against historic rivals, could only help keep the game vibrant.


  1. Sometimes less is more. I think you're right, Michael. Now we have to figure out which ones need to go.

  2. I agree in some part with this...however I don't think that reducing teams will help any part of the NHL. This would never benefit any teams...and unfortunatly it would lower the presence of Ice Hockey in North America. True that Dallas is up for sale, that the Thrashers and the Coyotes might be moving to Winnipeg but the support in Canada can't be much greater. The Nordiques, Jets and Whalers all had to move.

  3. I 100% agree with contraction. Bye Atlanta and Arizona, bye Florida and Tampa, bye Nashville, bye even one of Columbus, Carolina, or San Jose.

    Pick 4 to contract, move one to Winnipeg. Need to wait until Bettman or another idiot like him is no longer in charge.