A recent column by McGill University professors Henry Mintzberg and Karl Moore claims Canadians have lost control of hockey. Actually, their beef is more with the National Hockey League. In their opening paragraphs, they accuse Canadians of being “wimps” for allowing themselves to lose control of “our game.”
And how did the so-called wimpy Canadians do that? According to Mintzberg and Moore, by allowing those dastardly American teams, led by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, to seize control of a hockey league that is well supported by Canadian fans and dominated by Canadian players.
In their opinion, Bettman is the reason no Canadian team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993 because of his insistence on putting franchises in warm-weather regions. Mintzberg and Moore also blame Canadians for putting up with this supposed atrocity. They feel if Canadians weren’t such wimps, they’d rise up and create a movement to create a true national hockey league unsullied by meddling Americans.
The professors also believe Canadians would support a “national” league, citing a 2011 University of Toronto study claiming Canada could handle 12 NHL franchises, including additional teams in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The same report considers the NHL a cartel, claiming the barriers to more Canadian NHL teams are not due to economic factors but political and legal reasons. They also note a National Post editorial claiming cities like Hamilton, Victoria and Saskatoon are among the world’s largest hockey markets but have no chance of landing professional teams.
Mintzberg and Moore also cite a Forbes Magazine report claiming 30 percent of the league’s gate receipts and 55 percent of its operating income come from the seven Canadian franchises. They consider Canadians “suckers” because all that revenue is divided among the 30 NHL teams. The pair sum up by imagining the use of Canadian anti-trust laws “to redeem our sport from foreign control”, calling for real fan activism among Canadian fans.
As a Canadian, I can appreciate the professors’ frustration over the lack of Cup championships for Canadian franchises. However, they didn’t do sufficient homework on this report.
They immediately go off the rails by blaming Bettman for the league’s southern expansion, which is a common misconception among casual hockey fans. In fact, the NHL was already moving into the Sun Belt long before Bettman became commissioner.
In 1987, the NHL under then-president John Ziegler drew up a strategic plan to expand to 30 teams by the end of the 1990s. By the time Ziegler stepped down as president, the NHL had awarded franchises to San Jose and Tampa Bay, with Florida and Anaheim receiving approval in December 1992, two months prior to Bettman taking over as commissioner in February 1993.
Expansion to Nashville and Atlanta, plus the relocation from Minnesota to Dallas and Winnipeg to Phoenix. occurred on Bettman’s watch. By that point, however, he was merely completing a program that had been underway for years.
The authors claim Canadians get thrown the occasional bone, citing the relocation of the failing Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg. That’s simply regurgitating the tired, false myth that Bettman doesn’t care about Canadian franchises.
Around the turn of this century, when a considerably-weakened Canadian dollar threatened the existence of several NHL franchises in Canada, Bettman unsuccessfully lobbied the Canadian parliament for tax relief. He followed up by introducing a revenue-sharing plan to aid struggling Canadian franchises, and worked to assist the Ottawa Senators when the club went bankrupt in 2003. That doesn’t sound like a commissioner who’s “jerking around” Canadian hockey fans.
Bettman’s earned his share of criticism over the years, but he’s not the anti-Canadian boogeyman Mintzberg and Moore make him out to be.
The notion of Canadian hockey fans spurning the NHL for an independent Canadian league is laughable. The NHL has nearly a century of well-established tradition and history among professional hockey fans. It is hockey’s premier league. Considering how much NHL revenue comes from its Canadian franchises, it is obvious they enjoy unwavering fan support which no upstart national league can supplant. Suggesting those Canadian-based teams would spurn the NHL to join a new league is wishful thinking.
Russia, another passionate hockey nation, discovered creating an independent professional league cannot lure its best players away from the NHL. With all due respect to Mintzberg and Moore, they’re dreaming in technicolour if they believe a Canadian professional league would stand a better chance.
Touting political or legal reasons as barriers to more Canadian NHL franchises is pure hogwash. Economics is the major factor.
The population of Greater Victoria is over 358,000 and greater Saskatoon’s is 300,000. Their combined populations are less than that of Winnipeg (over 782,000), the NHL’s smallest market. The entire population of the province of Saskatchewan (1.125 million) is less than each of Canada’s NHL markets except for Winnipeg. Regardless of how fanatical hockey fans are in Victoria and Saskatoon, there simply isn’t enough of them able to pay the expensive price necessary to make NHL franchises viable in those locations. Broadcasting and sponsorship deals for those markets would be pitiful compared to those in the larger Canadian NHL cities.
In the past, attempts were made to attract an NHL franchise to Hamilton (pop. 765,000). Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anything resembling stable potential ownership capable of attracting a franchise. Several years ago, former Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie attempted to bring first the Nashville Predators, then the Arizona Coyotes, to Hamilton. However, his impatience caused him to run afoul of Bettman and the NHL Board of Governors by attempting to do an end-run around their relocation policies.
While the population of Toronto and Montreal could support additional NHL franchises, there’s no guarantee they’ll survive against the more popular and well-established Maple Leafs and Canadiens. As for that University of Toronto report cited by the professors, it was produced in a year when the Canadian dollar was on par with the American buck. With the “loonie” now worth around .80 cents US, good luck finding potential owners willing to pay the expensive expansion fees in US dollars.
Canada’s lengthy Stanley Cup championship drought has nothing to do with the league’s expansion policies, delusions over imagined anti-Canadian policies or “wimpy” Canadian fans. It has everything to do with the fluctuations of the Canadian dollar and poor management by the Canadian franchises. Even with a strong “loonie” and a salary cap supposedly leveling the playing surface for all teams since 2005, the respective managements of the Canadian teams still managed to find ways to screw up.
Tossing baseless accusations at the NHL commissioner, dreaming of an all-Canadian league and mocking Canadian fans won’t pry the Stanley Cup away from American NHL teams. Mintzberg and Moore’s report deserves a failing grade.