Why hockey needs a relegation system.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 5 2007 7:29 AM

My Plan To Save Hockey

The NHL should be more like pro soccer. No, I'm not crazy.

Sidney Crosby. Click image to expand.
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Yann Danis of the Montreal Canadiens

Dear NHL,

Welcome back! And congratulations on making it to another season. Just two years after fiscal calamity almost killed the league, I hear you're doing pretty well. So, huzzah, National Hockey League! And please pass along my best wishes to the defending champs, who have finally returned the Stanley Cup to its spiritual home, Anaheim.

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I'm writing today, however, to ask you to look beyond the excitement of this opening week. I know it's difficult to focus on trouble down the road with all the hysteria surrounding the weekend's big Thrashers/Lightning matchup, but I'm afraid you're still facing some serious challenges. Thanks to a functional but deeply imperfect revenue-sharing system, you're getting by. But you're propping up franchises that have no business surviving.

As has been noted many times before, you let salary growth far outpace revenue growth. You expanded all the way to the breaking point (if you're looking for this point on a map, it's suspiciously close to Nashville). Now, post-strike, you're sound enough to get back on the ice but didn't solve a fundamental problem. It's time to give up on Commissioner Gary Bettman's plan to spread the gospel of hockey to every hot corner of the United States and undo years of overexpansion. And I've got the plan to do it.

First, a disclosure: Though I grew up in New England, I've never been the world's biggest hockey fan. Much of the time I save by ignoring the NHL every year is spent following British soccer. I've come to love its system of promotion and relegation. The English Premiership, where teams like Manchester United and Liverpool play, is the big leagues. There are several other leagues below it. At the end of each season, the three worst Premiership teams are kicked down to the league immediately below them. The best two teams from that lower league move up; the third team gets promoted after winning a thrilling playoff series.

I love this. You're not just rooting for your own favorite club and watching what happens at the top of the league. You're also watching teams duke it out at the bottom as they fight for survival. Plus, it means that there aren't perennial basement dwellers. Team owners have to keep investing in their team if they want to stay in the spotlight (and stay where the money is). If baseball had this system, the nation would have been rid of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays a long time ago.

Now, I know that every sports bar in North America has a guy with a Wayne Rooney shirt prattling on about the greatness of relegation, and how baseball would be better if the Colorado Springs Sky Sox got their shot at the top. That guy is drunk. Don't listen to him. The other major sports are doing just fine as they are. They're raking in the big TV money and nearly all of the franchises have stable roots in their respective communities. The same cannot be said for you, dear hockey. You need promotion and relegation to survive.

The first order of business: Getting down to your fighting weight. Convene a crack independent panel of hockey people and economists (say, Wayne Gretzky, Alan Greenspan, Alan Thicke, and Neal Peart) to come up with the optimal number of NHL franchises. Some sports economists suggest that a 20-team NHL would be making money hand over fist. I'll use that figure until Thicke and co. come back with their findings. But how do you ditch teams without looking like you're waving the white flag? You contract through relegation.

Tomorrow, issue a press release that says you will eliminate the five teams with the worst records at the end of the 2008-09 season. Then, don't answer media phone calls for a couple of days. After you've milked your moment in the PTI/SportsCenter/talk-radio sun, watch as teams scramble for players. This process will be grossly unfair: The wealthy teams will buy up the talent and the struggling teams will get scraps. Sure, a few teams will spend way above their ability to pay. They'll do it, though, because their very survival will be on the line.

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