Blue Jackets' Struggles Illustrate NHL's Tale of Two Leagues
There are flourishing franchises, the ones that print money or are at least in position to make big dough. Among those on this list are the big market American teams in Manhattan, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington. Also thriving, naturally, are the six Canadian franchises.
While many NHL executives, players and fans live in denial, there are teams like the Blue Jackets battling league and their own economics just to stay in existence. To this list add Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, the Islanders, Phoenix, Tampa Bay. There are several more hurting franchises that haven't yet found the guts to finally say, "Enough is enough" like Columbus did on Thursday.
"Public partnership in arenas and stadiums has been a critical element to ensuring healthy, competitive sports franchises in markets across the country," said Blue Jackets President Mike Priest. "Our priority continues to be to secure long-term financial viability in this great city." Priest said his team's economic model has "significant disadvantages."
What's alarming about the Columbus saga is that the Blue Jackets opened the privately-funded Nationwide Arena in September 2000. The arena is one of the finest in the United States and bars, restaurants, a team store and the hockey team's state-of-the-art practice facility are adjacent. On the outside and the inside, the Nationwide complex -- funded by Nationwide in a deal struck by Blue Jackets founder John H. McConnell, who passed away a year ago -- is the envy of most NHL teams. The city's Arena District has become an NHL version of what Camden Yards meant for Baltimore. The Blue Jackets built it, and people have come from all over Ohio.
Yet the team is still losing huge dollars, which must send shivers down the spines of the owners of the NHL's B-list franchises. True, the dire situation in Columbus differs from the circumstances in Phoenix, Nashville, Atlanta and on Long Island. Dare I say it, but the economic plight of many NHL teams is not unlike what we saw this decade in the Arena Football League. In the AFL, commissioner David Baker and franchise owners worked and worked for years to stabilize operations until the league shut down last year.
No one is saying the NHL would ever fold, not with powerhouse franchises thriving -- in some cases, for generations -- in major American and Canadian cities. For the struggling organizations, commissioner Gary Bettman has maintained his dedication to keep teams where they are and find ways to help them be successful.
The NHL also affords all of its teams a chance to contend for championships. While fans of the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday might have watched the Yankees win another World Series and had every reason to wonder if their team ever has a chance, the NHL has passed the Stanley Cup in recent years to teams in Carolina, Tampa Bay and, well, Pittsburgh.
The challenge is to make sure those Cup banners stay in their cities. The challenge is make sure the fans supporting building teams like the Blue Jackets, Coyotes and Islanders don't endure the same fate of their brethren in Hartford and Quebec City.