My blood is made up of equal parts cheap Quebecois beer, maple syrup, poutine, and bacon. I’m a Calgary Flames fan, through and through. And I long for the day that a Canadian team wins the Stanley Cup (as long as its not Toronto….or Edmonton). I’ve worshiped at the temples of Saddledome, Northlands Coliseum, GM Place/Pacific Coliseum, and Winnipeg Arena. I’ve prayed to the Gods of Rocket and Pocket Rocket Richard, The Great One, the Magnificent One, and Mr. Hockey. I’ve seen the Holy Grail been raised in magnificent triumph, and slip away in merciless disgrace. I cried over the “IGGY heard around the world”, screamed “GET IT UP YOU (insert expletive)!” at my TV set so many times my immigrant neighbors think I’m insane. And I believe the Anti-Saviour is a 3 headed beast of Alan Eagleson, Graham James, and Gary Bettman.
Yet, as much as I hate Gary Bettman, I give him great credit as a builder. It disheartens me a little every time he gets jeered.
In the 1990’s, hockey safe market teams left for greener pastures since he began his role as commissioner. It was different economic times then. And while most Canadians hold it against him that Winnipeg and Quebec lost their teams. And that the warm climates Dallas, Miami, Carolina, Phoenix, Nashville, and Anaheim are more valid hockey markets than Seattle, Portland, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, or even Hamilton. I understand it more and more.
And why? Well, it makes sense.
The mandate of a man like Bettman is to grow the game. Sure, you can place teams in Saskatoon, Kitchener-Waterloo, Indianapolis, or Providence, but how does that grow the game? Those markets, along with Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, and every Canadian city are safe because there is no gamble involved. You’re not introducing new fans to the sport, you’re saying you aren’t willing to take a risk. And that’s what business is all about.
McDonald’s would have probably closed if a guy named Ray Kroc hadn’t come by and said “Holy Crap! This is magnificent!” and expanded the franchise to new markets. Yes, some have failed, but generally McDonald’s thrives.
And this is what Gary Bettman has done. He’s opened the doors to new markets. And had success. You see, while everyone lauds at the failures of Phoenix and Atlanta (version 2), they seem to forget (or tend to ignore) the successes of Dallas, Anaheim, and Carolina. All of whom have won a Stanley Cup.
No, being a Stanley Cup champion doesn’t automatically make you immune to difficult times. Dallas and Tampa have struggled with ownership and ticket sales. Yet, so have the safe market Cup winning teams like the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins.
And lets not forget that being in a safe market means success either. Neither Buffalo nor Vancouver have ever won a Stanley Cup. Its not that the teams haven’t been competitive. They’ve both been to the dance 3 times, and even won President’s Trophies (recently) as the top team in the regular season. Anaheim and Carolina have won Stanley Cups.
And while Phoenix is a failure, and Miami struggles to get fans in the seats, we laud at the fact that hockey is being played in these markets. Yet, no one really understands these are acceptable failures. The Columbus Blue Jackets however, are not. I mean, Columbus see’s snow during the winter, and star calibre players have worn the Volunteer’s sweater. Yet…only 1 playoff appearance in 14 years? Fan’s struggle to fill the Nationwide Arena, and the team is struggling financially. But again, we overlook that fact to point out the sheer tenacity of Gary Bettman keeping a team in a bad market like Phoenix. What happens when John P. McConnell say’s “to hell with it” and sells the Blue Jackets to investors in Houston or Las Vegas? We’re just going to say “Oh. Great, Bettman let another team disappear! Houston stole the Blue Jackets! Bettman hates hockey!”
Of course, the biggest upset for Canadians is that of the 6 teams to join the league in Bettman’s time as a builder, none of them originated in Canada. It was a massive coup when the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets 2 seasons ago. However, you hear arguments from everyone saying how Quebec City, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Surrey, Kelowna, and Inuvik would support an NHL team better than Phoenix. If this were the case, why don’t these cities have teams? Answer: due to popular disbelief, it is not a conspiracy. Gary Bettman does not hate Canada. Its just simple. Under population. Outside of the existing markets, Canadian cities do not have a sustainable population to support a major league sports teams.
Think about it, in order to sustain an NHL team in Saskatoon, tickets would range in price from $75 to $500/game the first year. In subsequent years, ticket prices would climb until they started at $250 and went as high as $1200. And market size has everything to do with it. Saskatoon has a population about 1/3rd of the next smallest NHL market. Which, oddly, is also a hockey safe market. Winnipeg. And its not just ticket prices in Saskatoon, but in Winnipeg and Edmonton. NHL teams rely heavily on TV revenue. Why would someone in Saskatoon be watching the Winnipeg Jets or Edmonton Oilers play when Saskatoon has their own team? All 3 cities would be forced to compensate with high ticket prices. Sadly for Saskatoon, given population size, it would be the big loser financially.
And Gary Bettman, at least in some sense, recognises this aspect. This is why there aren’t teams in these cities. Granted, its only one specific example city. Toronto or southern Ontario could (and does) support another NHL franchise. Its not like its a saturated market with 4 teams vying for air time. Let’s throw another one in the fray. Toronto has 5.5 million people, they could support a second team. In theory, so could Montreal or Vancouver.
And Vancouver will get its second team sooner. Only, it will not be in Vancouver. It will be in Seattle. And why? Because Gary Bettman is a gambler, and Seattle is a gamblers option. And this is why the most hated man in hockey deserves a little more respect.