The National Hockey League (NHL) has seen 18 teams fold or relocate since the league began in 1917. Of course the majority of those teams were put under those circumstances from country-wide events such as the Great Depression and World War II. Similarly to many sports in the U.S. that have grown to be part of the American culture, the league saw great expansion and popularity increase with improvements in broadcasting and communication in and around the 1970′s. Several teams have moved in and out of Canada: two of these were the Quebec Nordiques who became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 and the Winnepeg Jets who became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996.
Essentially, the general trend in the NHL expansion was movement to large, commercially prosperous cities in the U.S. in hopes grow the sport. Franchises were founded in large southern cities like Phoenix (AZ), Raleigh (NC), Dallas (TX), Tampa Bay (FL), Sunrise (FL), Nashville (TN), and Atlanta (GA). Not to say that no hockey franchise should exist in these cities – the Tampa Bay Lightening have been very successful as a franchise – but, for a time being the NHL was trying to grow in an unnatural direction. Owners of the league pushed for making hockey similar to the the National Football League (NFL), America’s most prosperous sports league, by aiming for large markets; this can also be illustrated by the NHL implementing flashy jerseys throughout the past decade.
Thankfully I commend the NHL for what looks like several moves in the right direction. Since the lockout (cancelled 2004-2005 season) it seems that the NHL has made effort to bring the league back to its roots. Hockey is a gritty culture, it is not flashy like the NFL or as widespread as the MLB (Major League Baseball). The league has reverted back to historic-looking jerseys and some of the older logos – best example of this is the Buffalo Sabres – and has a marketing team that has implemented a great tradition like The Winter Classic (an annual outdoor regular season game on New Year’s Day). In addition the NHL seems to be out of the dark ages by finally putting out great commercials to showcase the sport (“NHL: Where Legends Happen” Ad) and getting a solid contract for national television coverage on Versus.
Most importantly in the changing NHL is the buzz that hockey is moving back into some of the old Canadian cities, such as Winnipeg. Finally the executives of the NHL have realized that it is not the size of the market, but the passion within the market that truly matters. Successful franchises, and similarly successful businesses beyond sports, grow in markets that passionate and not necessarily large. Hockey is Canada’s national winter sport and if you talk to people who watched games in cities like Winnipeg or Quebec they will tell you there is no similar crowd. So bring back hockey to Winnipeg. There is no need to have a winter sports team in a large southern city that does not fully welcome the sport as it is. This is an important lesson that the NHL has showed us: stay true to your culture and your original market before looking to change or expand, because the passionate followers will take care of you.
So live on the NHL. Keep up the good work. Keep true at least for the fathers and sons, because there is few other events that I enjoy watching more than hockey with my dad. And as always, go Boston Bruins!