The week in hockey has been marked by record-low attendance numbers in locales such as Columbus, Atlanta and Phoenix. The fact that two of those franchises are part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s Sunbelt initiative, while the third was created during the NHL’s last stage of a rapid decade of expansion, lends credence to those who regard Bettman as a Canada-hating villain or, as ESPN’s Bill Simmons famously wrote, a plant sent by NBA commissioner David Stern to keep basketball ahead of hockey in the sports landscape.
But here’s the catch nobody wants to admit: Bettman’s plan worked. Maybe not in terms of long-term attendance, but certainly in growing hockey as a sport.
The proof comes from the youth. Based on International Scouting Services’ latest draft ranking, five of the top 50 prospects eligible in 2011 are from either the Sunbelt or Columbus: Shane McColgan (ranked No. 19 by ISS), Matt Nieto (No. 22) and Rocco Grimaldi (No. 30) are all California products, Colin Jacobs (No. 31) hails from Texas and Connor Murphy (No. 27) comes from the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio. Sitting just outside the top 50 is Arizona product Colten St. Clair.
The 2010 draft featured two California kids selected in the first round (Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem), which is more than the province of Quebec produced (that is to say, none). Center Luke Moffatt, taken in the seventh round by Colorado in that same draft, grew up in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, where his family had season tickets to the Coyotes and his dad was a friend of Keith Tkachuk’s. Even though hockey wasn’t on the minds of many classmates, the 6-foot-1 center fell in love with the game.
“It was definitely harder than here or Minnesota or Canada,” Moffatt said in an earlier interview while playing for the U.S. national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. “But I liked it, being something different. My dad is from Vancouver and he played all his life.”
Scan the prospect lists of NHL teams and you’ll find players from Texas, Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma and Arizona. The Dallas Stars even have a homegrown prospect in right winger Austin Smith, currently playing for Colgate.
And while it is disheartening for the NHLers themselves to play in front of half-empty buildings, it is not a phenomenon reserved for hockey – witness Evan Longoria’s rant against Tampa Bay Rays fans when the team was vying for a playoff spot this season. Every league, including the Almighty NFL, has also-ran franchises that can’t sell out a game to save their lives. The hope is always that the drought is cyclical and based largely on results (as we saw last season when Phoenix sold out its final eight home games of the regular season) and not general apathy.
But in one sense, I don’t so much care about attendance numbers. If it’s an epidemic, then yeah, I don’t want to see the NHL in a tailspin. But if owners who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars lose tens of millions of dollars over the course of five years, I don’t quite sympathize. To put it in perspective, it’s like me losing $20 on a football pool.
I’ve said it before, the cache of pro sports ownership is not that it’s a moneymaker – owners have already been successful at that in other industries – it’s that you get to say you own a pro sports team. Your wife got to design the new shoulder patch, your son gets to sit on the NHL’s board of governors and the team’s star goalie dropped by your niece’s birthday party. Life is grand.
In an ironic twist, Gary Bettman’s foray into expansion and non-traditional hockey markets has reaped something far more altruistic than padding the already fat stacks of wealthy businessmen; it’s given kids from everywhere in America the dream of a life on ice.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.