I feel that the NHL has paradoxically lost a lot of it’s appeal to the casual hockey observer by ushering in a salary cap and establishing the presence of relative parity. The prospect of competitive balance within the sport of hockey was long viewed as the ideal scenario, assuring the opportunity to succeed in any given season for even the least moneyed franchises and as a direct result providing these franchises with the means to draw new fans out of their tepid markets. It all sounded good on paper. But the league has lost a valuable dynamic that in my estimation plays a large part in the success of other major sports leagues and associations within North America.
Parity, we can all agree, was intended to draw non-hockey sports fans to hockey games in weak hockey markets by providing those teams with a competitive and balanced economic landscape in which to operate. DGB put it perfectly, however, when discussing in his blog the current hot button topic of fighting; it’s Business 101 that, as nice as it is to expand your present audience, you don’t sacrifice some of your current customer base in order to do so. And I do feel the NHL is losing a very valuable dynamic and could, over time, cost the league some of it’s following. Perhaps not the hardcore types that are reading and the one writing this very blog – the special breed that couldn’t imagine life without hockey, those that would gripe and complain if they didn’t like the current state of the NHL but would by no means abandon it all together – but moreso the upcoming, current and older generations of casual hockey fans. That dynamic is dynasties.
The days of the 1980s Oilers have most certainly waned into the NHL’s distant rearview. During Wayne Gretzky’s reign, the Great One skated alongside the likes of Paul Coffey, Glen Anderson, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier, all of whom hit the 50 goal mark during their respective stays. With the modern player salary, I challenge even Lou Lamoriello to fit a combination of just two or three of those assets under his cap.
There’s some chance of a repeat of the Detroit Red Wings’ semi-dynasty of the late ’90s to early 2000s over the next few years. Their ability to stay atop the hockey standings without any form of relapse in the form of a re-build/tool can be attributed to an astounding ability to identify and draft NHL-worthy talent on the part of front office personnel combined with astute behind-the-bench management from their coaching staff. It truly is a fine oiled machine of an organization, with a scouting department that has a knack for finding players that will blossom within the coaching staff’s efficacious system. I’d be willing to bet that, without the constraints of a salary cap, the Wings would be in the midst of a full out dynasty right now. They wouldn’t have to tradeoff assets while trying to keep in tact as much of the roster as possible and could actually sign a pricey number one goaltender to strengthen their defensive game that much further. Another major factor that may indeed contribute to future repeats of last year’s success is the winning culture and reputation of excellence that exists in Hockeytown, which inspired Marian Hossa to take a paycut to join the championship fold last summer. The Red Wings’ era of success will one day dissipate and it’s hard to envision a club ascending to the peak of the hockey world to take their place as the indubitable best team in the NHL, let alone one-upping them and forming a dynasty. All of this said, the Red Wings happen to play a monotonous brand of hockey that appears requisite to consistent success in the modern day NHL landscape and that’s not overly appealing to fans. There isn’t the sense of the big, bad Red Wings coming to town that can get casual fans excited and willing to buy tickets to see if their hometown heroes can slay hockey’s leviathan. More likely, fans will think “great, the Red Wings are coming to town to slowly and systematically suck the life out of my team while I fall half-asleep.”
On this topic, I’ve found something on which I actually agree with Bob McCown. In his book “McCown’s Law, The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments,” the blustering radio host points out in his 25th argument that many of a sport’s greatest historical moments are defined by dynasties. Think the Cowboys, the Steelers, the Bulls, the Yankees, the Packers, the Patriots. McCown points out that it’s also true of individual sports. I know, while a causal observer of the PGA tour, I never truly cared about the tour before Tiger Woods stepped onto the scene. Before hand, the winners from tournament-to-tournament just seemed way too all-over-the-map to even pretend to care. Either you tune in as a fan of Tiger, or to see who might rise to the occasion and beat Tiger this weekend. And McCown is again bang on when he says that the lack of a dominant force in the current heavyweight class has played a major role in the ongoing decline in boxing interest.
If you’re trying to convince one of your non-hockey fan friends to start watching the sport, as McCown says, you will probably show them highlights of the 1980s Oilers or the Canadiens of the 1970s. If the friend decides to tune into a few games, he probably won’t last long when he realizes there isn’t a team anywhere close in terms of appeal. And the casual fan might well start to lose interest as the Lightning, the Hurricanes, the Senators and seemingly the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks come and go faster than a fart in the wind.
To bring it back to home, the prospects for the Maple Leafs’ re-build are brought into question. The Lightning, the Penguins, the Hurricanes and the Ducks built up their squads over a number of years only to have but one or at best two real shots at the Cup before some of their secondary cast had to be sacrificed in order to retain their stars. Ottawa had opportunities pre-lockout before having but two shots afterwards because of cap issues. The Maple Leafs appear to be going the way of building through the draft. One can only worry that their window of contention will be similarly ephemeral. As it stands, it’s hard to envision the Leafs having more than just a couple of seasons in which to capture Lord Stanley’s mug, with the continuation of an enduring drought and the hopes of a famished fanbase standing in the balance.
Furthermore, don’t the fans of a team with a sold out building at record high prices deserve the right to contribute to a dynasty?