After a dreadful off-season, opening night was a welcome respite for the NHL, stocked with compelling storylines, entertaining matches, a bounty of goals, hits and highlight-reel saves.
Alex Ovechkin set the tone with a dominant performance in Washington’s win over Boston. Carey Price gave the Habs reason for optimism in his team’s overtime triumph in Toronto, while an injured Andrei Markov gave them potential reason for despair. Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff reversed his typical start-the-year-slowly pattern with a standout effort against Vancouver.
In Colorado, meantime, both new No. 1 goalie Craig Anderson and No. 3 overall pick Matt Duchene looked ready for primetime as the Avs upset the Sharks. Perhaps the home side will be better than expected in 2009-10; perhaps they were riding a wave of emotion on the heels of a stirring Joe Sakic jersey retirement ceremony.
Whatever the case, the Pepsi Center was full of energy, something we’re skeptical will happen with much regularity this season.
The Avs, once the pride of the league with a sellout streak that stretched beyond a decade, saw their attendance dwindle to an average of 15,429 last season, which translates to 85.7 percent of capacity. That ranked 26th out of 30 clubs.
So what are we to conclude? That Colorado is suddenly on par with Phoenix, Florida and Atlanta as an NHL dead zone?
Not quite. What it really underscores is the utmost importance of winning, especially during troubled financial times and especially in the NHL, a league whose fan base largely embraces the team first, the sport second.
Whenever I hear hockey doesn’t belong in Phoenix or Florida, I think of the successes enjoyed in Carolina and Dallas (though not so much lately). The primary difference? Carolina and Dallas built winning traditions, in a hurry, while Phoenix hasn’t had a sniff and the Panthers have been a bottom-feeder for the better part of a dozen years.
The winning-equals-success trend is as old as the league. Franchises, even in so-called traditional hockey markets, have struggled, folded or moved at times over the years. That list includes:
• Quebec City
• New York
• Montreal (Yes, really)
And we know we’re missing a few.
The Colorado Avalanche had the best running start of any newly located franchise ever. They already possessed Sakic and Peter Forsberg when they got to Denver and, shortly after they arrived, added Patrick Roy. Put those greats in Phoenix, mix in two Stanley Cups and the story would be dramatically altered.
At any given moment, whether there are six teams in the league, 12, 21 or 30, there will be perennial losers who struggle. There’s only a very small handful of markets that can sustain long periods of failure and not be hurt financially.
Throw in a CBA that, despite promises, is flawed, and there’s no way we can have 30 healthy franchises – not all at the same time. Just ask the good people of Colorado.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.