With the National Hockey League’s announcement last week that the Board of Governors had voted to expand the league into Las Vegas, Nevada, there was some of the predictable chatter about “non traditional hockey markets.” The hand wringing and disparaging remarks were even greater since the NHL had seemingly shunned a “traditional market” in Quebec City in giving the 31st franchise to Las Vegas.
However, as yesterday’s NHL Entry Draft illustrated to a point, putting teams in the “non traditional” markets and expanding the reach of the sport has already begun to pay off.
Another issue that comes up during discussions of expansion is how the talent pool will be “watered down” and you will have less talented players playing on NHL rosters.
Yesterday’s Draft also has seemingly put that argument to rest.
What yesterday’s Draft showed, with Auston Matthews of Scottsdale, Arizona (who grew up a Coyotes fan), being selected first overall, is that by putting franchises in places that normally would not have major league hockey, you open up the game by making new fans. Those new fans take their children to the game. Those children then fall in love with the game of hockey and bug their parents to let them try it. Maybe one of those kids is a one-in-a-million athlete, as Auston Matthews is. The next thing you know, he is being drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, hailed as the savior of that moribund franchise.
Would Toronto have gotten their latest savior had the NHL not taken the risk of putting a team in Arizona? The answer to that is a little bit more complicated than just a simple “no.” Yes, they would have gotten someone (likely from the “traditional” hotbeds of Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, New England or Europe) but the fact remains that Matthews’ rise shows just what the power of wading into uncharted waters can do for the NHL.
When you put a team in an area, kids latch on to them. The 2016 Draft saw a record number of Americans go in the first round (twelve of the 30 picks were American born). Now, some were the sons of former Canadian NHLers who were born in the US while their fathers were plying their trade. Players such as Kieffer Bellows (picked 19th overall by the Islanders) whose father, Brian, is from St. Catherines, Ontario; Kieffer was born in Minnesota.
But for every player in that category, you had an Andrew Peeke (taken in the 2nd round, 34th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Peeke is from Parkland, Florida and grew up a Panthers fan. Like Auston Matthews, he is a player from a “non traditional” market who grew up a fan of a team in that area.
The Devils even made a deal for a player who was born in California, in Beau Bennett, yesterday.
Although a record number of Americans were drafted yesterday, it is not like Canada was neglected. The best players in the world are still arguably produced north of the border. The only thing that is happening is that players are beginning to have to strive and compete even harder to get the spots that, in the past, would have been basically guaranteed them.
Once you open up a market like, say, Dallas, you begin to see kids taking up the sport who would not have before the NHL team arrived and begin to play at an elite level. Suddenly, within a generation or two, you begin to see players from the Nashvilles and Arizonas compete with Canadian kids for spots in the NHL.
And that begins to alleviate part two of the argument against expansion: too many teams will water down the league. Maybe, but water finds its own level and with more teams in new places getting new kids in those places to play hockey, they are going to give you more water in the talent pool to draw from.
In the past, prior to the Draft, teams like Montreal had the inside track on all of the best players in Quebec, which gave them a marked strategic advantage on the other clubs in the league. Now players from everywhere are available to any team in the NHL and that opens up great possibilities. Who would have guessed that a kid from the Arizona desert would essentially come to “save” the staid and tradition-bound Toronto Maple Leafs?
The NHL is a great product. It is the best hockey league in the world and it deserves to be seen by as many people in as many places as possible. Part of what makes hockey so inspiring is that when a kid sees it live, they will inevitably want to try it because it looks so cool. In the case of Auston Matthews, he was a great athlete inspired to play hockey because his parents took him to a Coyotes game. Without the Coyotes, Matthews would likely have ended up playing another sport (and considering what a good athlete he is said to be, that would be the gain of the NFL or MLB and not the NHL).
Granted, Arizona is not going to immediately supplant Alberta as a hockey hotbed simply because of one success story, but now young hockey players in Arizona have someone to look up to, one of their own is skating in the NHL. This, in turn, creates interest and more players in the future. It is self-sustaining. Where will the next success story come from? Could it be Las Vegas next?
And I am in no way advocating that the NHL neglect Canada. Canada is where the sport was invented and Canadian players are the lifeblood of the league. Denying Canada NHL hockey would be just as ridiculous as not allowing new markets to gain access to it. The further the reach of the sport, the better off the sport will be.
From a personal standpoint, that is huge. Growing up playing hockey, having Jim Dowd, a local hockey player who “made it” and was playing for my team, the Devils, was a real boost to a younger me. Now, obviously I did not make it to the NHL, but that is more due to a lack of skill and athleticism on my part. The main point is that I had someone to look up to. A role model who was from New Jersey and playing in “the Show.” I had the role model, but not the skill. More than a few kids in Arizona will now have the role model and the skill to make it to the NHL.
How far we have come that even forty years ago, it would have been crazy for an American to go first overall in the Draft. This year we had an American from Arizona go number one overall.
How things change. And a good deal of that change has come due to the opening up of markets that previously did not have NHL hockey and never would have had it would the NHL have listened to some of its harshest critics.