Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since 1993. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
This column is being posted on Christmas Eve – just in time to speculate on what many people are hoping to haul in this year from Santa’s Army of One.
Most Southern Ontarians are probably hoping to receive a few extra days of heat and humidity in the calendar year to come. Most hockey fans would be happy to score tickets to an NHL game. Most Southern Ontarian hockey fans, on the other hand, might be most pleased to see a second NHL franchise land in the Greater Toronto Area.
And I’m one of the many who believes they deserve it. Unless it means the NHL growing beyond its current 30-member setup.
If expansion is the only way to bring another team to the region, I’d rather each of my fellow Southern Ontarians receive a carriage full of coal.
Don’t mistake the message; there’s little I’d love to see more than a franchise to challenge the Maple Leafs’ multi-platform monopoly. I don’t believe a second GTA team would have an obstacle-free road to limitless profit, but it absolutely would force Leafs ownership into focusing on producing positive results in the win/loss columns with the same ferocity that drives them when they’re cultivating cash at breakneck speed.
That’s good for all Toronto fans. But that’s only if a relocated team is brought in. Otherwise, expansion’s ripple effect on the sport would be calamitous in all-caps.
For starters, I’m going to go a little Johnny Cochrane during the last nine words in this sentence and point out what any honest soul in the hockey industry freely admits: expanding the brand makes the NHL’s product notably bland.
It isn’t just the prospect of rosters being thinned out, or the most tedious expansion draft in pro sports history – “With the first pick, The T-Dot Shinny Soldiers are proud to select Alex Steen” would live in infamy and hilarity forever – that has me dead set against the notion.
Expansion also is about selecting another municipality of potential hockey fans to torment for years to come. As Phoenix Coyotes supporters have become painfully familiar, the only thing worse than year-in, year-out inconsistency on the ice is year-out, year-in uncertainty off of it.
Now, some of you may look at the above paragraph and say, “rest your typing fingers, Mr. Writer Man – which genius is trying to say that a second NHL team in Toronto would be a potential failure?”
Mr. Writer Man certainly isn’t saying that. But if you think the announcement of an expansion franchise for Southern Ontario wouldn’t be tied to the announcement of a 32nd NHL team – either for Kansas City or Las Vegas or some other world-class gambling excursion inside a secondary American market – you’re skating into intellectual territory without a jock.
That 32nd team brings me to my final point about expansion. If it happens, we’ll be seeing NHL owners attempt to begin the first canonization of a sports commissioner – and while I’m sure Gary Bettman has done wonderful things for family, friends and co-workers, the last thing he should be in line for (especially if he accepts more teams into the league) are kudos and a coronation as NHL Czar For Life.
But that’s what will happen with Southern Ontario expansion. And that’s why the temptation to expand has got to be Bettman’s ultimate trump card. If he can rustle up $400-500 million in expansion fees from two new teams – obviously, with the bulk of the booty originating from the Toronto team – the owners who employ him will take the money and run, just as they did during previous expansion eras.
The payday would cement Bettman’s legacy among owners for good. From their perspective, not only did he tear Bob Goodenow’s head off and use it as a wine tumbler after the last labor war, he’s taken the Jim Balsillie fiasco and turned Toronto expansion into his ace in the hole. He drops that card in a time of unrest and distrust and suddenly he has Canadians – OK, perhaps only a segment of Canadians – thinking he’s redeemed himself for bringing another team to Canada and he’s made each of his owners $15 or $16 million apiece for nothing other than more chairs in the league boardroom and different destinations for team charters.
In actuality, though, expansion would be another dilution of the sport, another short-sighted money grab by an ownership collective that sees only trees and no forests.
In actuality, Bettman’s impending clarion call to the owners is nothing but a Mermaid’s Song – sweet to the sailor’s ear, but destined to drag down an already talent-challenged sport to the bottom of the entertainment ocean.
So repeat after me: Yes for Two Toronto Teams. No for More Expansion. Rewarding Southern Ontarians for adoring the game is important – but protecting hockey’s bigger picture is the most crucial goal of all.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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