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A nearly empty hockey stick rack is shown in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (David Duprey/AP)
A nearly empty hockey stick rack is shown in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (David Duprey/AP)

What would an NHL with just 12 teams look like? Add to ...

Salaries might reflect star power. In the same way that George Clooney can get $10 million or more per movie but an extra might need to work for scale, that’s how free-market economics would operate in a pared-down NHL as well. Sidney Crosby would still earn top dollar, as would Steven Stamkos, Zdeno Chara and players in that top-tier category.

Below them, someone like the steady Willie Mitchell would keep his job, but maybe not Torrey Mitchell or John Mitchell.

What’s fair after all? People buy tickets to watch Crosby and Alex Ovechkin play. By rights, they should reap the benefits of their celebrity and their drawing power. People generally don’t pay to watch millionaire shot-blockers or penalty-killers or seven-minute-per-night fourth liners, so their salaries may end up dropping.

According to Forbes, the three top-earning teams in the league (Toronto, the Rangers and Montreal) posted an aggregate operating profit greater than the rest of the league combined in 2010-11, the most recent year in which figures are available. And at the bottom end, six teams (the Phoenix Coyotes, the New York Islanders, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks) combined to lose $70.9 million in the same span. If you eliminated just six of the red-ink splotches, you’ve essentially eliminated the problem.

Since the first expansion, the NHL has, at different times, been a 12-, a 14-, a 16-, an 18-, a 17-, a 21-, a 22-, a 24-, a 26-, a 27-, a 28- and now a 30-team entity. At different times, it had as few as two Canadian teams and as many as eight.

Over the years and the shifting sands of NHL membership, one lesson has become clear: Sometimes, in the hockey business, bigger isn’t always better. Expanding too far too fast can lead to trouble.

Lean and efficient is preferable, especially for businesses that try to find niche operations such as the NHL, that relies heavily on a deeply ingrained love of a game, to separate customers from their hard-earned dollars.

The players association has been pretty outspoken about one point during the current labor dispute with the league - that they would like to find an elusive long-term solution to their differences, so owners stop locking them out every eight years or so.

Except for the necessary collateral damage - player jobs lost, the unhappiness expressed by hardcore fans in markets that saw their team disappear - it is hard to imagine why some form of contraction wouldn’t be the answer for a lot of what ails the NHL.

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