Since the franchise relocated to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996, many Canadians have been rooting/hoping/wishing/praying for its' failure. I've been a fan of The Great Game long enough to understand and appreciate the Canadian view of hockey (which, in many respects, is quite similar to the Texan view of football - somewhere between sport and religion, and closer to the latter). With all due respect to the country that gave birth to hockey, Canadians who would dance on the Coyotes' grave, and who would like to see the other "non-traditional market" teams - Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Florida in particular - fail are, themselves, failing to see and understand the big picture.
Here's a (not so) crazy idea, Canada: Instead of focusing your efforts and prayers on the demise of the NHL in the southern U.S., why not cheer for the success of those franchises? If the Nashvilles, Atlantas and Floridas of the league can remain viable, the door can be opened for expansion. What did I just say? You heard me: EXPANSION.
Provided the southern U.S. franchises can stabilize and remain viable, I see the door opening for expansion to a 32-team NHL. Where would those new franchises go? While Las Vegas and Kansas City are most commonly mentioned, I think the league would be foolish not to pursue the recently-floated idea of a second franchise in Toronto, and on a personal level, I'd love to see the Jets (as an expansion franchise) flying high over Winnipeg again.
Why not simply relocate, say, the Coyotes and Thrashers? Because abandoning those (or any other) markets would be a step backwards, a defeat, for the NHL and for hockey itself. The truth of the matter is that any non-traditional market team can be viable - successful, even - provided they are successful on the ice. Even the Coyotes, whose previous owner shot them in the foot by building the arena across town from their fan base, could get fans to make the drive by putting up Ws and making a little noise in the playoffs. As General Patton (George C. Scott) said at the beginning of his biopic:
"...Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser."
Won't expansion dilute the talent pool, lowering the quality of play and dragging the NHL back down the path toward the "dead puck" era? No, it won't, and here's why: Thanks to the NHL's expansion into non-traditional (southern U.S.) markets, the talent pool is now expanding. Look, for example, at the US National Team Developmental Program's Under-18 team: The roster features a goalie from Florida and two skaters from Texas. The US NTDP U-17 roster is even more diversified, with four forwards from California and one each from Texas, Colorado, Las Vegas and...wait for it...Arizona. Kids who grew up playing hockey in Texas and Florida are now popping up in Canada's major junior leagues and in big-time NCAA Division I programs. Kids across the southern U.S. (like Tex Jr.) who would otherwise be playing football, basketball, baseball or soccer, are now choosing hockey...and it's all because of the NHL's expansion/relocation below the Mason-Dixon line.
So Canada, I'd like to invite you aboard the NHL Expansion Train. Remember, though: It's because of the non-traditional market teams that the talent pool is growing, which will only improve the quality of play, which will, in turn, bring in new fans (increasing TV viewership and league revenues accordingly), which will allow the NHL to expand to 32 teams...And a note to Gary Bettman: When the NHL does expand again, it's time to reward the country that gave birth to The Great Game, and Toronto and Winnipeg would seem to be most deserving.
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