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Storm Clouds on the Horizon?
It's time to for the NHL to grow up
2/15/17 - By Ryan Hall -

Pop Quiz: What do Long Island, Raleigh, and Glendale all have in common? If you said they're home to NHL teams that are all in trouble, then you probably already know how much uncertainty the league head office is currently dealing with. While the situations are all different, and complex in their own way, the underlying truth is that at least 10% of franchises are facing some serious questions in the near future. Just in case you aren't familiar with the details, here's a quick refresher:

Long Island: Two years ago the Islanders left the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (NVMC) after failing to get a new stadium build, and moved into the newer Barclay's Center in Brooklyn. While this venue was originally designed to host basketball, the Islanders were certain they could make it work. Despite bad sight lines, the team appeared to have a home and stability, until last month when the team was informed they would need to find a new home.

In essence Barclay's was giving them the boot. Currently, the team is looking at moving back into NVMC, which has undergone a minor upgrade, while hoping they can build a new arena somewhere nearby. The hard truth is that in the very near future the Islanders could be a team without a home, though the nice people in Hartford have offered them temporary (or permanent) accommodations if they need it. True story.

Raleigh: Team owner Peter Karmanos, Jr. has been trying for a while to bring some new owners on board, putting a portion of the team up for sale years ago. However, he hasn't had any takers, and earlier this season he made it known he's open to selling the entire franchise if anyone wants it. While the league, and I believe Karmanos, would prefer a local buyer, lately leaks have started to emerge that he would be willing to sell to an out of state - or out of country - entity. Of course this has started tongues wagging about the possibility of relocation, and distracted from the on ice strides made by the team.

Glendale: There isn't enough space to recap the entire Coyote's saga (soon to be a Peter Jackson epic trilogy, I expect), but as it currently stands the team has no lease with Gila River Arena for next season, and a potential stadium deal with Arizona State University was just scuttled. Owner/frontman Anthony Leblanc is still adamant that a new stadium can be built somewhere else in state, however he's been rebuffed at every turn.

Even worse, after spending a year bad-mouthing Glendale, he may be forced to crawl back to them; with the city only offering a single year deal at a time - and no lucrative subsidy. Bleeding red ink, the team is on life support financially, and may also soon be a club without an arena to play in.

With all of this uncertainty, one thing seems to be crystal clear: something has fundamentally gone wrong. For decades the NHL operated under the premise that owners weren't responsible for building arenas, that was the job of municipalities. In return, if a city ponied up and paid for a shiny new barn, the NHL would show some loyalty to them (Atlanta not withstanding). This approach served the league well, with a host of new rinks being constructed in the last 20 years.

However, the economic realities of many cities has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and tightening budgets make it impossible for this approach to continue. Like it or not, the days of cities building $400+ million sports venues for hockey clubs are over, especially when the owners themselves are billionaires who just don't want to spend any of their own cash. If you don't believe me, look deeper into the discussions in Edmonton with Darryl Katz, Calgary and Ottawa (who are at various stages of getting new arenas), and Seattle (who desperately wants to re-attract pro sports).

The question is, what can be done? While the league continues to grow, there is an ever-widening gap between the have's, and the have-not's. Several teams depend on the limited revenue sharing the NHL has, with others sustained solely by subsidies provided to them by the cities in which they play in. Having so many teams on such tenuous financial footing has to be of concern to the league, as any further global economic downturn could put a great number of clubs in real fiscal danger.

Unfortunately, the only way out of this mess is for the league to make a change in the way it does business. For far too long the NHL has been concerned about 'markets', prompting them to overlook potentially good locations and owners in favour of poor ones that happened to be in a place the league wanted to grow its 'footprint'. This imperative has driven the league to make many poor decisions, as anyone who remembers William "Boots" Del Biaggio can attest. The hard truth might be that simply wanting to be in a market isn't enough to make it sustainable.

Listen, I'm not saying the league shouldn't try to grow, nor should they exclude markets that aren't 'traditional'. The Sharks won't be here if the NHL didn't have the vision to grow the game in California. However, there are several 'non-traditional' markets where the league could go, they just might not be the ones Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors want. Places like Kansas City, Milwaukee, Houston, Portland, all could be good landing spots for clubs, and in most cases there are owners, money, and arenas that are waiting.

At the heart of this is that the NHL can no longer 'rely on the kindness of strangers' in order to survive. For a league that is trying very hard to be taken seriously, having franchises sink or swim based on the subsidies they get from municipalities simply destroys credibility. If the NHL wants to be a major sports player in North America (and globally), quite frankly they need admit their past mistakes and ensure they do what is best for each individual franchise, and the league as a whole. In some cases, that will mean hard choices, broken hearts, and tears. But until the league finds a way to stand on its own two feet financially, uncertainty around franchise stability were continue to drag it down, and distract from the best advertising the league has: the product on the ice.

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