In professional sports, and specifically hockey, you have significant franchises and then you have everybody else. For each Original Six team in a city that understands how ice works, you have a handful of irrelevant franchises battling for the attention of viewers with archived footage of Slamball and tape-delayed episodes of Regis and Kelly.
We call these franchises the Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers but they are just as easily the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes. They might not be much, but their role in the global ecology of sport is essential.
They exist behind the scenes where nothing exists, deeper than the harrowing dark floor of the Ocean of Relevance where rays of attention don’t shine and life is sustained by the weight of the sea*. Barring an indisputably apocalyptic shifting of tectonic plates, the sun will never shine here and thus relevance, for them, is unattainable.
But don’t feel sad, they knew this coming in, and their presence allows the rest of the professional sports world to operate as planned. That their mere existence conveniently allows Gary Bettman’s worker elves to put together unique, yet at the same time geographically reasonable, schedules year in and year out is simply a bonus.
By the end of the 2010-11 season, at least one of the teams that people have grown to habitually ignore will be knocking on the playoff door as they always do. Quite snottily we’ll peak out from behind the walls that we’ve arbitrarily built around our bandwagons to get a look at who is disturbing our peace with their goofy logos and lack of established tradition.
They’ll make their case for acceptance, claiming to have won more Stanley Cups in the past decade than the Original Six combined and we’ll scoff. We’ll say “Tampa Bay who?”or “I don’t know any Hurricanes”, but eventually we’ll submit to the allure of their temporary winning record because we’re easily distracted and the NHL is twisting our arms.
Our acceptance, however, is superficial and offensively time-sensitive. Within months the ugly duckling club from the state we keep forgetting will slide back into obscurity only to resurface in the news the next time a Canadian city is granted funding for a new NHL-ready arena.
If it weren’t for the stigma that Bettman and the league established themselves through their obnoxiously transparent and unrelenting attempts to force feed hockey to the southern United States, then perhaps the teams that came out of it would have a snowball’s chance in Glendale, Arizona of winning over the respect of fans in established markets. Instead the regime was so hastily executed that fans of the new franchises are hardly fans at all and fans of established teams resent them for stealing attention that used to be theirs.
It’s just not comfortable knowing that supporting the Florida Panthers only encourages the league to continue on its futile conquest through the American south, neglecting the established markets in Canada and the American northeast that have allowed the league to exist in the first place. So put your John Vanbiesbrouck lunch pail away, it’s not helping.
As far as the overall professional sports landscape is concerned, the NHL isn’t perfect. It comes as no surprise then that the business model isn’t perfect either. These imperfections, however, don’t have to virtually discount roughly a third of the franchises that make up the league.
Unfortunately for anybody with a vested interest in the development of the NHL brand, as long as Bettman’s name is attached to the project, it won’t have the respect to be truly effective.
*And geysers. Geysers, thermal heating, hot air, Gary Bettman…