Since the early 1990s, the National Hockey League (NHL) has expanded from twenty-one franchises to thirty franchises. While this expansion was happening it was heralded as a sign of the NHL’s success and future outlook. But not everything has not turned out as expected.
For one thing, the addition of nine franchises meant the addition of about 200 roster players to the league. Even though the expansion coincided with an increased European presence, the end result was a lowering of the bar. Instead of teams being loaded with skilled players, many teams have been forced to stack their third and fourth lines with players who previously would not have possessed the talent needed to play in the NHL
Not only has the talent pool been diluted through the expansion, but several teams have been placed in weak markets. Much of the expansion was driven by Wayne Gretzky’s popularity and the success of his LA Kings. He had garnering attention and attracted fans from across the Sunbelt.
But Gretzky couldn’t play forever. The next few years saw his career decline as he was traded to St. Louis before finishing his career with the New York Rangers After that, the NH L no longer had a transcendent star to promote. The casual fans in Southern markets began to disappear, creating a financial crisis for the teams located there.
The financial problems of these teams led to the lockout that erased the 2004-2005 season. The intent was to solve the financial instability of the league by tying player salaries to league revenues. Since the lockout, however, the success of teams in bigger markets combined with the surge in the Canadian dollar has led to ever-increasing payrolls The rising salary cap has also meant a rising salary floor, which has threatened to destroy the lower-revenue teams in weaker markets
With few exceptions, the Southern expansion has failed. Hockey has repeatedly been shown to be a regional sport that is particularly popular in Canada, New England, and the States along the Canadian border. This means that—despite the financial struggles of some teams—there are not many possibilities for relocation.
The Atlanta franchise was moved to Winnipeg in June 2011, removing the option that many considered the most likely destination for relocation. Kansas City, which has been rumored as another possible location, has a new arena that meets NHL standards but no interested buyers. Quebec City has the opposite problem; they have interested owners but an antiquated arena.
The most promising relocation possibility may be Southern Ontario, but with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres,and Detroit Red Wings already in that general vicinity the NHL has been resistant to that possibility. Plus, with the high demand for hockey in the Toronto area, it could be that the NHL plans to cash in by placing yet another expansion team there. (The league would profit more from expansion fees than relocation fees)
So what’s the solution? With about a third of the franchises in the NHL facing serious financial peril and another third struggling to break even, what options are there?
The NHL appears to be destined for another lockout after the completion of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) following the 2011-2012 season. There’s little doubt the NHL will negotiate hard for an immediate rollback in player salaries, a lower percentage of revenues determining the salary cap, and (perhaps most importantly) a reduction in the salary floor.
Even so, it is unlikely that any of these measures would successfully create parity among all the franchises. The best option—though expensive and difficult to pull off—may be contraction. By eliminating six of franchises and returning to a 24-team league, the NHL would become a much healthier and viable league.