If you’re not a hockey fan, watch this video first for a good rules primer
I don’t follow hockey very closely. I’m a basketball guy. But I am from Minnesota, which I think makes me qualified to talk about hockey like an expert.* The NHL has a lot of real problems right now. I am not the man to solve them. However, I did spend a lot of time today solving a fake NHL problem that I made up. For my purposes, the NHL lockout doesn’t exist because that would complicate things. This plan is a total pipe dream and will never in a million years be implemented. It was still fun to think about.
*Disclaimer: I am decidedly not an expert. I did no research for this. Some, many, or most of my statements and assertions may be totally wrong.
One thing that hockey fans always gripe about is how the NHL overexpanded into southern cities. The league is bloated, and having NHL teams in Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Nashville, Raleigh, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Jose feels wrong. That’s almost a third of the league. A common solution proffered is to shrink the NHL and/or move some of these teams to Canada. This has become more viable lately with the strength of the Canadian dollar, and the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg was a good first step. Clearly, there are a lot of hockey fans who don’t have an NHL team to cheer for. There are quite a few minor league, junior, and college teams that regularly draw over 5,000 fans a game, and several that average around 10,000. Instead of contracting, the NHL should expand and split into divisions, with promotion and relegation. Yes just like European soccer. Yes this is a total hack sportswritery thing to write about. Every year some idiot writes a column about how the Kansas City Royals should be sent down to AAA and they don’t realize how stupid it makes them sound. This is especially dumb to suggest in baseball, but I think if the NHL really wanted to do it they could.
Of course, this will never happen. Sending current NHL teams down to a new second division is a total non-starter, and having a bunch of 30-team divisions is probably unworkable. TV money, arenas, player allocation, etc. would be unsolvable arguments. I don’t care. I’m doing this anyway.
Hockey is by far the most logical sport to adopt a multi-tier structure. Baseball’s need for extensive affiliated minor leagues would make it impossible there. Basketball and football would need to compete with their college counterparts in the lower divisions. That’s a battle they probably can’t win. No one’s going to follow a new Louisville NBA division two team instead of the Universities of Kentucky or Louisville. Hockey is perfect. There are a lot of established minor league teams whose major league affiliation is much looser than in baseball. It’s quite feasible that they could become independent operations. Plus the NHL doesn’t compete with college hockey for fans in any meaningful way.
The current system for developing North American hockey players needs to be overhauled. Elite teenagers don’t follow the same path as elite teenage football, basketball, and baseball players do. This has its benefits, but the patchwork system of junior leagues and development programs currently in place is highly inefficient. Players who are drafted by NHL teams very rarely sign with the team and start playing for their minor league affiliate. They usually go to either the NCAA or one of the Canadian Major Junior leagues* for a year or two or three first. In baseball, players who are drafted either sign with the team and play for a minor league affiliate under the parent club’s supervision, or re-enter the draft. In hockey, a team who drafts a player retains his rights for years, and instead of signing them and paying them money, teams usually elect to let the players keep playing for free until they’re close to ready for the NHL. This is a dumb way to do it.
*The NCAA v. CHL is a whole different topic that’s beyond my scope. People think one or the other is better hockey or better for the kids and there are huge fights about where talented kids should play and whether Junior teams illegally pay players under the table and it’s a whole stupid thing. I know this because I keep an eye on college hockey recruiting. My dedication to my dear alma mater is so irrational that I read about hockey recruiting sometimes. There are multiple blogs that cover my alma mater’s hockey recruiting efforts. And yes, college hockey would suffer under this proposal. The NCAA would lose most of their best players to new youth academies. The sensible thing for the NCAA to do would be to work out some way for kids who played for pro teams in their youth but didn’t make the big time to be eligible. I’m not going to delve into that. The NCAA’s tortured relationship with amateurism is a different topic worthy of its own long blog post. Suffice it to say that college hockey could survive and thrive if anyone competent were running things. Too bad that’s more unrealistic than this crazy NHL idea.
A better way to allocate and develop players would be to eliminate the draft and allow NHL teams (in all divisions) to run youth academies and sign players at will. This way teams have a vested interest in developing new players and those players will receive much better and more consistent instruction than they do now. Teams would have a reserve squad that would allow young players close to NHL-ready as well as players recovering from injuries etc. to compete against other reserve teams. They could also loan players out to other teams in lower divisions for some seasoning. Again, yes this is just like European soccer.
Enough prologue, here’s the proposal: 80 teams, four divisions of 20 teams each. League conferences and divisions are eliminated. Teams play the other nineteen teams four times each for a 76-game schedule. The bottom three teams get relegated, the top three get promoted. Don’t worry, I have a lower-division playoff structure all worked out. Keep reading.
I organized the top three divisions. It would be easy to find 20 places to put teams for the fourth, but I didn’t get into the details. I allocated the teams by recent standings and attendance, history, and geography. This is the kind of thing that could prove controversial, and there are a lot of other ways to do it. I like my way best.
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
St. Paul Wild
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Original Six. All the current Canadian NHL teams. US teams based mostly on past and current success and fan support. I included the Islanders instead of the Devils because of their move to the Barclay’s Center, their four straight Stanley Cups in the 80’s, I like their uniforms, and I’ve always thought it was cool that they represent Long Island.* That’s always struck me as kind of cool. Notice I changed the Minnesota Wild to the St. Paul Wild. Keep reading for all the info on the new Minneapolis team.
*The Islanders is a cool name but here’s an idea: change the team name to the Pets, to match the Mets, Jets, and Nets. Their logo could be a puppy on a leash. Alternate logo: fishtank.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Columbus Blue Jackets
Lake Erie Monsters
Minneapolis North Stars
New Jersey Devils
Tampa Bay Lightning
Here’s where things get interesting. I’m starting to include teams from the AHL and the Major Junior leagues (QMJHL, OHL, and WHL). A hearty welcome back to the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. Anyone else excited for the return of the North Stars? One of the hard things in deciding on teams was what to do with cities that have more than one. I think the Twin Cities could pretty easily support two pro hockey teams as well as the University of Minnesota. The North Stars could play at Target Center. It would be interesting if nothing else. The Chicago Wolves are very popular now, and I think would get even more so in this structure. They’d peel off some Blackhawks fans and become the de facto team of the northwest suburbs. Toronto could probably support three teams. The only question is how many Maple Leafs fans would really defect. Everything I read tells me they’re by far the most popular NHL team despite being terrible for most of my 29 years. Second-tier Canadian cities and the dregs of the NHL fill out the league. These Canadian Junior teams draw in the 7-10 thousand range. Imagine what they’d draw with professional players. The Lake Erie Monsters play in Cleveland and have the dumbest team name I’ve ever heard. They should call themselves the Cleveland Spiders.
Craig Kilborn used to play this on The Late Late Show sometimes
Edmonton Oil Kings
Ft Wayne Komets
Grand Rapids Griffins
St. John’s IceCaps
I picked a lot of these based on cities who already have successful minor league teams. I didn’t do any research about arena size, so some of them might not have much hope to grow and get promoted. The Providence Bruins and Edmonton Oil Kings would have to change their names since they’d lose their old NHL affiliations. I threw Anchorage in because it would be cool to have a team in Alaska. Some of these Canadian teams are tricky. The Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa teams draw something like 9,000 a game, but would that continue if they were in direct competition with their established NHL teams? I don’t know. None of those are as large as the US cities with multiple teams. I think it could work.
I didn’t work this all the way out. Possible team locations:
Salt Lake City
Sault Ste. Marie
Lots of big US cities and small Canadian cities. A lot of those Canadian cities you’ve never heard of have Junior teams who draw 3-4,000 fans a night. It’d be cool to have teams in Minnesota’s Iron Range and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Lots of these US cities have NBA arenas ready to go. Easy.
One thing I haven’t talked about is money. How would TV contracts be awarded? How much would players earn? What would the differences be between divisions? How would minor league teams get the money to fund their new associated costs? I’m not going to answer those questions. The economics is really what makes this all unfeasible in the real world, so I won’t even bother. Let’s all just pretend it would work somehow.
In European soccer, there aren’t playoffs to determine league champions. Most points at the end of the regular season wins. In the lower divisions, the top two teams are promoted automatically and teams 3-6 have a playoff for the last spot. Obviously I wouldn’t eliminate the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In NHL1, the top eight teams would qualify for the playoffs, which would be the same as they are now.* In the lower divisions playoffs would work a bit differently. The regular season champion gets the league championship trophy and gets to hang a banner. But that’s not how you get promoted. That’s where the playoffs come in. The top nine teams qualify. They’re divided into three groups. Group A: 1, 5, 9; Group B: 2, 4, 8; Group C: 3, 6, 7. These groups play a sextuple round robin. Three home and three away against the other two teams. That’s twelve total games per team. Teams earn points just like the regular season, and the top two teams from each group advance to the “Promotion Round”. Group A winner plays Group C runner-up, Group B winner plays Group A runner-up, and Group C winner plays Group B runner-up.** Best of seven, the three winners get promoted. This would be incredibly exciting. It would make casual sports fans care about minor league hockey.
*Except there would be one fewer round of playoffs than there are now. This, combined with the shorter regular season, would help keep the season from being as ridiculously long as it is now.
**The groups are paired such that if the seeds hold, the promotion series are 1-6, 2-5, and 3-4. Figuring out the groups was the hardest part of this whole post. Let me know in the comments if you have a better way to do it. The groups, that is. Not the promotion system in general. I like my system.
This is a great idea and no one will convince me otherwise. I wish I were the commissioner of the NHL. I would be a hero to sports fans everywhere.