I want hockey, at its highest level, hosted only where it is loved — not where it’s the whim marketing experiment of an expansion-impulsive commissioner, but rather where it’s loved. It has to be this way, because hockey will ever encounter regional biases and prejudices and durable conflicts of culture; it is at its essence a winter sport, and for many regions in North America, winter never arrives. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily damning for hockey’s growth, but it is daunting. To grow hockey’s broad appeal we need to showcase it in high definition in hothouses of love.
One of which isn’t Atlanta.
The story of the Atlanta Thrashers really is pretty much the same with that of the Atlanta Flames: a long-odds experiment carried off for about a decade before largely vast vistas of rink emptiness. “Many nights the Thrashers played in front of great wastelands of empty chairs at futuristic Philips Arena, located downtown beside CNN headquarters and the Centennial Olympic Plaza,” the Canadian Press noted yesterday.
Although with the Thrash you ought to acknowledge that in the persons of Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa there were top-flight superstars wearing the team sweater, in their prime . . . and still it didn’t matter. There are of course superb hockey fans in Atlanta. There just aren’t enough of them.
Big league hockey has now failed twice in Atlanta. It should be a cold day in August there before it’s located there again. The Atlanta Spirit are the boogeymen of the moment in that town, but in time the Atlanta Journal Constitution will reflect on the failure with greater sobriety and perspective. Or maybe not. More importantly, we need our commissioner to reflect thusly.
Ultimately, he’s the figure to blame for hockey going up in flames in Atlanta. Hockey never belonged in Atlanta. You can’t quite imagine eight or ten buses filled with Atlanta hockey fans driving up 95 to take in a Saturday night Islanders game next season, can you?
Did you behold Bettman’s constipation-like countenance yesterday in Manitoba, at the presser confirming the worst-kept secret in the history of the NHL? If it wasn’t a look of constipation, it surely was one of ‘My eldest daughter just texted me from a tattoo parlor in Vegas, where she’s apparently eloping with a roadie for a gangster rap band.’
In his nearly 20-year tenure as NHL commissioner, yesterday in Manitoba won’t rank among the highlight moments for Gary Bettman.
Nor should it.
Hours before the start of the Stanley Cup finals the commissioner was out in the Canadian prairie, explaining (sort of) how it was that a top 10 U.S. market had rejected his marketing experiment. Yesterday in Manitoba was a seminal moment for the NHL, and it ought to have been one for the league’s owners and their unflinching conviction in the branding wisdom of their commish. It was Gary Bettman, the NBA marketing genius, who sold them on this notion that hockey can pretty much be plopped down anywhere in the U.S. and succeed just fine. Today we know with certainty that it cannot.
I’m very happy this summer for the hockey-loving people of Winnipeg, but some core questions emerge from news like yesterday’s, and they ought to be grappled with by the owners promptly. Foremost among them:
- Is NHL hockey a 30-market enterprise? And if it is, should a glut of franchises be located well south of the Mason Dixon Line?
- Also: Irrespective of lease agreements, how much arena emptiness, over successive years, is too much emptiness?
- Lastly (for the moment): If there is to be additional, dramatic market correction, and associated realignment, is Gary Bettman the guy we want carrying it off?
There was, too, a conspicuously ominous backdrop to yesterday’s news, and it too offers another referendum front for this commissioner. For most sensible people, there is an inevitability of failure to be found as well in the Arizona desert for NHL hockey. The Coyotes put a few more fannies in their seats than the Thrashers did (I think), but their rink is stupidly situated, virtually impossible to access by car from Phoenix in rush hour. Kinda like old Capital Centre was. And like Atlanta, there is no root infrastructure buttressing the big league club, no flowering youth and high school hockey scene driving hockey parents and hockey playing kids to the games. There is with the Phoenix Coyotes the fairly broadly held belief that this spring they stayed their ultimate execution by merely a year, that where we were with the Thrashers the past few weeks is where we’ll be with Phoenix in a year’s time, maybe sooner. Just as no notable deep pockets showed up to bail out the Thrash in their town, none ever seem to out in the desert for that hockey club. For good reason.
Strike two for this commish. Anyone wanna bet the bleeding stops with Phoenix?
In recent years I’ve come to the conviction that hockey can not only survive but thrive in non-traditional markets, but that a root infrastructure of support must take hold in these uncommon outposts. Hockey is an expensive sport to play, an expensive sport to patronize 40-plus times a season. It helps a lot to have it located in a community of affluence. Washington passes this test with flying colors. We actually have kids here on travel teams who go up against top competition in New England, the upper Midwest, and Canada and win games. As a community, we invest well in the development of our hockey players, relatively new to the sport though we are, and that investment is paying dividends. DeMatha’s hockey team competed in a top-flight tournament in Maine last season, around the holidays, and the Maryland high school surprised a lot of New Englanders with their competitiveness. DeMatha’s first two lines can often compete with those of many of New England’s power schools. They lose games up there with their third and fourth lines. It’s an issue of depth. I bet that gap closes in the next five or six years.
We aren’t a hockey town merely because we say we are, and we will be one after Alexander Ovechkin retires. And Gary Bettman had nothing to do with our becoming one.