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Vulgar Opinions: Thoughts On Realignment And Expansion

02/26/13

I’m sure by now everyone has seen the realignment idea that has been floating around for a few days.  It’s basically a poor cover to get the Red Wings to stop being a bunch of spoiled whiners and to also throw a bone Columbus’s way.  We would go back to four conferences with two eights (Eastern teams) and two sevens (Western teams).  How the playoffs would shake out is unclear, but the most popular suggestions seem to involve four teams from each conference playing in a divisional round, or three teams from each conference and wildcard teams figuring in somehow.

The former is nice because it encourages rivalries, but also kind of dumb because Conference 3 is a little crappy and would put in at least one undeserving team while also making it easier to make the playoffs in the seven team conferences.  It’s a slightly different take on the problem we have now with the putrid Southeast.  What makes the most sense is eventually expanding to 32 teams in the future and evening out the conferences.  A lot of people hate that idea for three basic reasons:

  • The talent pool is too diluted as it is and produces bad hockey
  • There are already teams that are struggling to make ends meet
  • Selfish elitism

The first two are understandable at least in part.  There are certainly under-talented players on many NHL teams.  But it’s not like that number is static, or even proportional to the number of NHL teams.  As the sport grows, so does youth participation, especially in non-traditional areas.  The the second point, the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils are both jokes when it comes to attendance.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean expansion is bad as a general concept, or that any expansion in the future is a bad idea.

Which brings me to the third, the (relatively large) contingent of hockey fans that either want hockey to stay a “Northern Game” or that want the sport to remain this little niche thing that they can feel cool for liking.  That’s why so many fans favor contraction, it satisfies the first two points and keeps them in their elite club of hockey fandom, ridiculing the NFL from their ivory icy tower.  Or does it?

The talent will grow better in all phases of the game.  While that means passing, shooting, and scoring, it also means positional defense, goaltending, and coaching.  A lot of hockey’s excitement is borne out of the fact that some players are better than others.  The attendance point is even worse because that (much like the available talent pool) also doesn’t remain static.  How many teams have ranked in the top ten in attendance since the (2005-2006) lockout?  Nineteen, excluding Atlantapeg (peak 13th), Carolina (18th), Columbus (17th), Dallas (13th), Florida (22nd), Nashville (18th), New Jersey (25th), NYI (25th), Ottawa (14th), Phoenix (21st), and Tampa Bay (15th).  To put that another way, there have only been 25 instances since the lockout in which a team averaged less than 80% attendance in a given year.  (Note: 7 years * 30 teams makes that out of 210.)  Those 25 instances have been split across 12 teams, one of which (Atlanta) moved, and two of which (Chicago and St. Louis both twice) sell out almost every game now.  AND even attendance doormats like Columbus, Florida, Nashville, Ottawa, and yes even Phoenix have ranked in the top ten in the league in attendance in the past 15 years.  So today’s dumpster fire is tomorrow’s raging success.

Plus contraction proponents seem to ignore the banging gong of death that contraction would be in terms of television and advertising.  Hey Mr. Sponsor/TV Exec, my sport feels that half of the country can eff off and doesn’t matter, do you want to give us money to expose your product/put us on TV?  Hey ESPN, we decided to cut a half dozen teams, including ones in the 6th (Phoenix), 9th (Dallas), 15th (Columbus),  and 26th (Nashville) largest cities while staying out of the 4th (Houston), and 22nd (Seattle),  does that make us relevant now?

Now look, I know market size isn’t everything (lest someone come in here and say, “does that mean we should move Buffalo hurr hurr?”), nor am I saying that expansion has been or will be a raging success everywhere, but I have a hard time believing that the best thing for hockey is to shrink the sport.

Bonus Material:  Can we get off the idiotic notion of naming the conferences or divisions after famous hockey people?  Having a rich history is great (and hockey certainly has that) because it gives a mountain of material to dive into.  It also gives too many people raging nostalgia…um…bias, and prevents things from moving forward.  It’s awesome that Boston, Detroit, Chicago, NYR, Toronto, and Montreal were the first six teams, but Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Edmonton, and Vancouver have contributed at least as much to the fabric of the sport as those six teams.  None of them deserve to get shut out of the famous name game that NHL brass and fans alike enjoy playing.  Plus it makes it more difficult for casual fans to get into the sport when they have to figure out what the hell the Billy Coutu division is, and just who plays in it.  End rant.

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