Sports Nut

My Plan To Save Hockey

The NHL should be more like pro soccer. No, I’m not crazy.

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Yann Danis of the Montreal Canadiens

Dear NHL,

Welcome back! And congratulations on making it to another season. Just two years after fiscal calamity almost killed the league, I hear you’re doing pretty well. So, huzzah, National Hockey League! And please pass along my best wishes to the defending champs, who have finally returned the Stanley Cup to its spiritual home, Anaheim.

I’m writing today, however, to ask you to look beyond the excitement of this opening week. I know it’s difficult to focus on trouble down the road with all the hysteria surrounding the weekend’s big Thrashers/Lightning matchup, but I’m afraid you’re still facing some serious challenges. Thanks to a functional but deeply imperfect revenue-sharing system, you’re getting by. But you’re propping up franchises that have no business surviving.

As has been noted many times before, you let salary growth far outpace revenue growth. You expanded all the way to the breaking point (if you’re looking for this point on a map, it’s suspiciously close to Nashville). Now, post-strike, you’re sound enough to get back on the ice but didn’t solve a fundamental problem. It’s time to give up on Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to spread the gospel of hockey to every hot corner of the United States and undo years of overexpansion. And I’ve got the plan to do it.

First, a disclosure: Though I grew up in New England, I’ve never been the world’s biggest hockey fan. Much of the time I save by ignoring the NHL every year is spent following British soccer. I’ve come to love its system of promotion and relegation. The English Premiership, where teams like Manchester United and Liverpool play, is the big leagues. There are several other leagues below it. At the end of each season, the three worst Premiership teams are kicked down to the league immediately below them. The best two teams from that lower league move up; the third team gets promoted after winning a thrilling playoff series.

I love this. You’re not just rooting for your own favorite club and watching what happens at the top of the league. You’re also watching teams duke it out at the bottom as they fight for survival. Plus, it means that there aren’t perennial basement dwellers. Team owners have to keep investing in their team if they want to stay in the spotlight (and stay where the money is). If baseball had this system, the nation would have been rid of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a long time ago.

Now, I know that every sports bar in North America has a guy with a Wayne Rooney shirt prattling on about the greatness of relegation, and how baseball would be better if the Colorado Springs Sky Sox got their shot at the top. That guy is drunk. Don’t listen to him. The other major sports are doing just fine as they are. They’re raking in the big TV money and nearly all of the franchises have stable roots in their respective communities. The same cannot be said for you, dear hockey. You need promotion and relegation to survive.

The first order of business: Getting down to your fighting weight. Convene a crack independent panel of hockey people and economists (say, Wayne Gretzky, Alan Greenspan, Alan Thicke, and Neal Peart) to come up with the optimal number of NHL franchises. Some sports economists suggest that a 20-team NHL would be making money hand over fist. I’ll use that figure until Thicke and co. come back with their findings. But how do you ditch teams without looking like you’re waving the white flag? You contract through relegation.

Tomorrow, issue a press release that says you will eliminate the five teams with the worst records at the end of the 2008-09 season. Then, don’t answer media phone calls for a couple of days. After you’ve milked your moment in the PTI/SportsCenter/talk-radio sun, watch as teams scramble for players. This process will be grossly unfair: The wealthy teams will buy up the talent and the struggling teams will get scraps. Sure, a few teams will spend way above their ability to pay. They’ll do it, though, because their very survival will be on the line.

Once the regular season begins, hockey’s TV ratings will pass those of the NBA. While pro basketball’s worst teams lose on purpose to secure a better position in the draft lottery, the dregs of your league will leave their blood on the ice. Picture it: “Tonight on Versus, it all comes down to one game for the Atlanta Thrashers. Beat the Colorado Avalanche or say goodbye to the NHL.” I’d watch that, and I’m not even sure I get Versus.

What will happen to the teams that get booted? Some will just fold, in which case you’ll need to come up with a generous severance package. (It goes without saying that you’ll get sued. Hire some good lawyers.) Other owners, dismayed at dropping to the minors, will spend like crazy to try to win their way back to the NHL. In the meantime, our hypothetical demoted team will become part of the geographically diverse, well-attended network of professional hockey leagues in the United States and Canada. The Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, for example, draw 9,000 people a game even while your Canucks draw 19,000 in the same city. There are other leagues like the WHL. Your minor-league affiliations are less formal and entrenched than baseball’sI’m sure you can work with the likes of the AHL, the CHL, and the ECHL to develop a new, tiered system.

So, five teams leave the NHL that first year. Five teams leave the second year. But in the second season, three teams are promoted from the lower division, making the 2010-11 NHL a 22-team league. Do the same the following year—cut five teams, promote three—and you’ve whittled the league down to 20 teams. Not only will this generate excitement in the NHL, it could be the secret recipe for spreading hockey fever to every corner of the United States. If the Bears are contending for NHL promotion, Hershey, Pa., will be going crazy. If the recently relegated Philadelphia Flyers are in town to play the Providence Bruins, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center will be rockin’. This promotion and relegation drama will be happening in leagues and arenas all across the continent.

I’m sure the idea of teams from Hershey or Peoria (or Moose Jaw) cracking the NHL makes you shudder. Who’s going to watch the Albany River Rats face off with the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?Well, first of all, hockey fans. Lest you forget about them. And second, everyone loves a Cinderella. If Albany has made it up from the AHL to take on the big guys, people are going to watch.Remember George Mason? If you still need a little playoff ratings boost, you could always borrow a move from reality TV and give each series winner a year of relegation immunity.

Let’s be honest: You don’t have massive television contracts like the NFL or the NBA. Media deals make up only 4 percent of each of franchise’s revenue. Your league is almost entirely dependent on gate receipts and arena revenue. While that’s a sad state of affairs, it means that if a city can draw fans, a city can support an NHL franchise. People in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, love hockey. People in the greater Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario metropolitan area love hockey. Would it really hurt to swap the Nashville Predators for, say, the Kitchener/Waterloo Killer Whales?

NHL, I know this hurts, but it’s straight, cruel capitalism. Less than a decade into the plan, you’ll have a robust, sustainable league. You’ll have hockey in the cities that love hockey. If the Halifax Mooseheads are slugging it out with the New York Rangers for the 2012 Stanley Cup, then all the better. That will mean the Mooseheads can draw 18,000 rabid fans and have owners who’ve invested in building a great team.

So, there you have it, NHL. I know my plan has flaws and that it requires all sorts of things that could be resolved only in a courtroom, if at all. And I know that Nashville Predators fans will go all McSorley on you for even suggesting that they should be demoted. But that’s your problem. The Blue Jackets/Wild game will be on soon and there’s a Top Chef rerun I want to watch instead.

Yours truly,