Once the regular season begins, hockey's TV ratings will pass those of the NBA. While pro basketball's worst teams lose on purpose to secure a better position in the draft lottery, the dregs of your league will leave their blood on the ice. Picture it: "Tonight on Versus, it all comes down to one game for the Atlanta Thrashers. Beat the Colorado Avalanche or say goodbye to the NHL." I'd watch that, and I'm not even sure I get Versus.
What will happen to the teams that get booted? Some will just fold, in which case you'll need to come up with a generous severance package. (It goes without saying that you'll get sued. Hire some good lawyers.) Other owners, dismayed at dropping to the minors, will spend like crazy to try to win their way back to the NHL. In the meantime, our hypothetical demoted team will become part of the geographically diverse, well-attended network of professional hockey leagues in the United States and Canada. The Western Hockey League's Vancouver Giants, for example, draw 9,000 people a game even while your Canucks draw 19,000 in the same city. There are other leagues like the WHL. Your minor-league affiliations are less formal and entrenched than baseball's—I'm sure you can work with the likes of the AHL, the CHL, and the ECHL to develop a new, tiered system.
So, five teams leave the NHL that first year. Five teams leave the second year. But in the second season, three teams are promoted from the lower division, making the 2010-11 NHL a 22-team league. Do the same the following year—cut five teams, promote three—and you've whittled the league down to 20 teams. Not only will this generate excitement in the NHL, it could be the secret recipe for spreading hockey fever to every corner of the United States. If the Bears are contending for NHL promotion, Hershey, Pa., will be going crazy. If the recently relegated Philadelphia Flyers are in town to play the Providence Bruins, the Dunkin' Donuts Center will be rockin'. This promotion and relegation drama will be happening in leagues and arenas all across the continent.
I'm sure the idea of teams from Hershey or Peoria (or Moose Jaw) cracking the NHL makes you shudder. Who's going to watch the Albany River Rats face off with the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?Well, first of all, hockey fans. Lest you forget about them. And second, everyone loves a Cinderella. If Albany has made it up from the AHL to take on the big guys, people are going to watch.Remember George Mason? If you still need a little playoff ratings boost, you could always borrow a move from reality TV and give each series winner a year of relegation immunity.
Let's be honest: You don't have massive television contracts like the NFL or the NBA. Media deals make up only 4 percent of each of franchise's revenue. Your league is almost entirely dependent on gate receipts and arena revenue. While that's a sad state of affairs, it means that if a city can draw fans, a city can support an NHL franchise. People in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, love hockey. People in the greater Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario metropolitan area love hockey. Would it really hurt to swap the Nashville Predators for, say, the Kitchener/Waterloo Killer Whales?
NHL, I know this hurts, but it's straight, cruel capitalism. Less than a decade into the plan, you'll have a robust, sustainable league. You'll have hockey in the cities that love hockey. If the Halifax Mooseheads are slugging it out with the New York Rangers for the 2012 Stanley Cup, then all the better. That will mean the Mooseheads can draw 18,000 rabid fans and have owners who've invested in building a great team.
So, there you have it, NHL. I know my plan has flaws and that it requires all sorts of things that could be resolved only in a courtroom, if at all. And I know that Nashville Predators fans will go all McSorley on you for even suggesting that they should be demoted. But that's your problem. The Blue Jackets/Wild game will be on soon and there's a Top Chef rerun I want to watch instead.