On hockey returning to Winnipeg

I was a little shocked this morning to find out that Damien Cox still writes for the Toronto Star; not surprisingly, improvements in his hockey analysis were not responsible for his continued employment. Damo completely misses the point here:

"[the 1997 expansion plan] was a rash, foolhardy attempt to bloat the league to 30 teams, and it has ended up being a negative, not to mention a drain on league coffers through revenue sharing. Moreover, not a single new market has opened up its doors to the league since, unless you count Kansas City. For three decades, the NHL governors could always count on there being new cities out there willing to build arenas and pay expansion fees, but that well has run dry.

Growing to 30 teams from 21, meanwhile, has yielded a profitable franchise in San Jose and a team in Ottawa that had to be rescued from bankruptcy before becoming stable. Leaving Atlanta (again) for Canada (a second time) is a most ignominious retreat from Bettman and Co., and anything but strategic. Had the league stayed at 22 teams, or even 26, it would be stronger today."

While Cox might claim to be a student of history, I think he misses the mark. First,"bloat" is not the correct word to describe expansion from 21 teams to 30. When the NHL and WHA combined for 32 professional hockey teams in 1975, yes, hockey was bloated. But the NHL player pool underwent a massive expansion in the early 1990s, and as I noted last year, Canadian representation in the NHL has been flat on a per capita level since the WHA folded.

Obviously a smaller league would have been stronger - an eight-team league with Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers would never use the words "bankruptcy" or "relocation", but it hardly would have maximized hockey's exposure or revenue. A 22-team league would still have left a lot of talent on the table, and even with 20/20 hindsight it's still not clear to me that it a 26-team league would have maximized revenue.

And of course, we don't have 20/20 hindsight. All you need to do is look at the historical $CDN/$USD exchange rate. In 1992, the Canadian dollar began an 11-year slide against the US dollar that made it virtually impossible to operate a hockey team in Canada - by 2003, Canada had viable franchises in its three-largest cities, question marks in its next three and a legacy of failure in its seventh and eighth. If only someone had the foresight to realize that the United States would start printing money in the next few years following the awarding of the last expansion franchise, massively devalue its currency against the Canadian dollar, bankrupt all of its city governments, and turn the populace against the corporate welfare that marked arena- and stadium-building in the 1990s, and that NHL owners would lock out the players and guarantee themselves a fixed portion of overall league revenues. Central planners like to put up five- and ten-year roadmaps, but their predictions are rarely accurate, and their execution to said plans even rarer.

So Damien Cox can say "I told you so" when the NHL's southern teams run into financial hardship and the league returns to its fan base. But I'd be much more impressed if he'd predicted the global economic collapse of 2008 that was the culmination of the forces that will ultimately drive the NHL's southern teams back north.

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