Henry Mintzberg and Karl Moore are professors in McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management.
We Canadians may be tough guys on the ice, but off it, we're wimps. We have allowed ourselves to lose control of our own game.
We invented hockey. Our kids play it more fervently than kids anywhere else. They grow up to constitute most of the players in the National Hockey League – which is mostly an American league, not national. We have the most enthusiastic fans, the most significant television audiences, the most lucrative franchises. Yet we beg for teams in many of our cities while Las Vegas, of all places, gets the attention and the Phoenix team sits bankrupt in the desert, significantly at our expense.
From 1954 to 1993, Canadian teams won 27 of 40 Stanley Cups. In the 22 years since, no Canadian team has won the cup – not one, zero. That cup, by the way, was given by a Governor-General, long before the NHL was created, for "the champion hockey team in the Dominion of Canada."
What happened in 1993? Well, Gary Bettman became commissioner of the NHL in New York City. His strategy has been clear enough: Expand the sport in places where an ice cube wouldn't last a minute in the heat while we Canadians, out in the cold, get thrown the occasional bone (the people of Winnipeg thank you for your generosity, Gary). We can hardly claim that this guy's antics have stopped us from winning cups. But something happened. No statistician would look at these figures and conclude that they are random.
We have been asking this of various people, including some who have been prominent on and off the NHL ice. We have heard no helpful answers, save from a 19-year-old family member in Toronto – a Hab's fan, of course – who said: "The owners can get away with it; they know the fans will come anyway." Try that in Las Vegas. Indeed, according to a January blog post for The Economist, in three key American cities – Anaheim, Nashville and Tampa Bay – fans "seem unwilling to pay up even to watch [these] championship contenders."
Could it be that we Canadians don't know how to coach and manage Canadian hockey teams? Hardly – we are top of the world in men's, women's and junior hockey. Well then, might it be, without even realizing it, that we are so disheartened by the loss of our own game that we can't get our act together at home? This may seem far-fetched, but one thing is clear, and worth repeating: Something has happened to our game in our country and we need to do something about it. You've jerked us around long enough, Gary.
If we weren't such wimps, there would be a movement here to create a truly national hockey league. Think about this: Almost all sports leagues everywhere are national. Europe, for example, has soccer leagues in England, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. In North America, baseball and basketball have but one Canadian team, and football has two completely separate leagues. Were this the case in hockey, the Canadian league would likely be the one to watch – in fact, the American one might have to restrict the number of Canadian players. Could we support our own league? No doubt about that. A 2011 University of Toronto study was subtitled "Why Canada can support 12 teams," including second ones in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (the New York area now has three teams and Los Angeles two; the Premier League in English soccer has six teams in London alone).
The report stated that "Small Canadian cities are bigger hockey markets than most large American cities." And a National Post editorial earlier this year described several cities, including Hamilton, Victoria, and Saskatoon as "some of the largest hockey markets in the world," yet with "absolute-zero hope" of getting a team.
According to Forbes Magazine, 30 per cent of the gate receipts in the NHL and 55 per cent of the league's operating income come from the seven Canadian teams. Canadian fans spend on average $73 at games compared with $27 in the States. The TV contract in Canada generates almost double what the one with NBC does in the U.S., yet those revenues are split evenly between the thirty teams. We Canadians have to be the world's greatest suckers. We shell out while being shut out.
The NHL may be a business – it does, after all, require its coaches and players to dress like businessmen – but that business is described in the University of Toronto report as, "not a free market. The NHL owners are not competitors but instead collaborators in a cartel ... The barrier to more NHL teams in Canada is not economic. The problem is political and legal, as are the solutions."
Imagine using our anti-trust laws to redeem our sport from foreign control, propped up by just a few Canadian owners, while legally claiming back our own cup. Well, wimps may not create leagues. But instead of sitting passively in front of our TV sets watching a couple of American teams battle it out for our Governor-General's cup, how about some tough talking to the NHL? We need to push our substantial weight around off the ice for a change, supported by some real fan activism. Flinging jerseys on the ice just won't do it. We Canadians have nothing to fear but wimpiness itself.