The recent foibles of the Phoenix Coyotes have re-ignited the debate as to where NHL hockey teams should be located. The NHL officially states that they prefer to keep the teams in Southern markets to grow the game of hockey, but in reality its likely more a case of Bettman and Co. not wanting to admit that the expansion was a failure. After a dozen plus years in most of the markets, it seems pretty safe to say that many of these southern teams are in trouble.
Taking Bettman’s claim about growing the game at face value and applying it to these same markets, you see that there is a better success story with the youth hockey market. Dallas, Phoenix, Florida and even Carolina all have thriving hockey programs for kids and all compete quite successfully on the US AAA hockey stage. The Dallas Stars AAA and PF Changs (Phoenix) AAA programs are both graduating many players into the college and junior hockey ranks, and the other teams likely aren’t far behind. While not widespread, there is certainly a grassroots affinity for hockey in these areas and good athletes are eschewing the traditional paths of football and basketball to play hockey.
That brings me to the point I am trying to make. If the NHL really does want to grow the game, why don’t they take the money they use propping up failing franchises and invest it in youth hockey. Exclusively in youth hockey. The AAA teams I mentioned are an American success story, with motivated parents raising funds and soliciting big name sponsors to allow their teams to travel all over the US, Canada and even Europe to compete in high level tournaments and in some cases even league play. They are hiring qualified and motivated coaches, and the kids get the best instruction possible. However, these teams also have their monetary limits and not every kid can afford the sometimes steep fees that are associated with the programs. This is where the NHL steps in.
Since socialism is all the rage in the US these days, why not let these programs suckle from the government (NHL) teat for a while? If the multi-million dollar investment of team bailout money is too much for the league, perhaps they should consider giving the nearly $7 million dollars they handed out to USA Hockey a more even distribution (look out college kids, I am stealing your Marxist thunder) and invest in a more comprehensive hockey building program in the US. Since most of the aforementioned $7 million gets eaten up by the USNTDP and its sixty-odd kids on two teams, wouldn’t it make more sense to get that money to these various AAA (and other) programs where hundreds of kids could be helped?
Geographically speaking, most of the NTDP kids are from Michigan or Minnesota, two places that really don’t need help enticing kids to play hockey. Perhaps with the NHL money going to Florida, Arizona or Utah etc, a couple of their kids could graduate to the NHL, which would undoubtedly spur interest in youth hockey. Look at the effect Gretzky coming to Los Angelese had. Its not out of the question to think this could happen elsewhere.
Is it reasonable to counter that the NHL propping up the failing franchises basically has the same effect as investing in youth hockey? Are the kids in these regions driven to hockey because they are watching the ‘Canes, Coytoes or Panthers? Perhaps some are, but there is no substitute for playing the game. Its just too easy to flip past the game on tv to find a more recognizable game than it is to stop on Versus and investigate. But, you get that same kid on skates and chances are they will get hooked. Plus, its not like kids growing up in Saskatchewan, the Maritimes or Toronto need to be close to an NHL team to get interested in hockey. Likewise, kids in Phoenix or South Florida would survive and continue to play if their NHL teams left town. If Gary Bettman and the league administration wants a good way to capture some positive PR and to leave a valuable legacy, an increased investment in American youth hockey is the way to go.