SPORTS

Hockey’s reversal of fortune

Less than a year after a damaging labor dispute, the NHL forges ahead

JAMES DEACON October 9 1995
SPORTS

Hockey’s reversal of fortune

Less than a year after a damaging labor dispute, the NHL forges ahead

JAMES DEACON October 9 1995

Hockey’s reversal of fortune

SPORTS

Less than a year after a damaging labor dispute, the NHL forges ahead

For a while, it looked more like a blind date than a hockey game. In their first-ever home game in Denver, players on the Colorado Avalanche—the ex-Quebec Nordiques—were anxious to impress when they took to the ice last week at McNichols Sports Arena. Nervous and tentative, they failed even to complete a pass for the first few minutes. Finally, after an awkward silence in the stands, Avalanche centre Peter Forsberg drew moderate cheers when he deked the visiting St. Louis Blues’ defence and fired a shot just wide. The crowd was more appreciative when goaltender Stephane Fiset made great saves against Blues snipers Brett Hull and Dale Hawerchuk. Then, 15 minutes into the opening period, Andrei Kovalenko swept a Forsberg rebound into the Blues’ net to give Colorado a 1-0 lead. The sold-out arena exploded, and the fans’ ardor—and the noise level—grew as the Avalanche skated to a 3-1 victory. Afterward, in the Avalanche dressing room, the players were relieved to have started the relationship on the right foot. “It was good to finally play in front of our new fans,” said defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre. “And it was good to win.”

There is an almost giddy excitement surrounding the National Hockey League season that starts this week, and it is not just in Hockey Mountain High. Unlike last season, 1995-1996 is not threatened by a labor dispute. Teams in Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston are all moving into grand new arenas. Off-season

trades and free-agent sign-

ings have put old stars in new uniforms, and raised expectations of fans everywhere. And thanks to league-wide parity, the battle for NHL supremacy is wide open. “There are as many as 10 teams that realistically have hopes of going to the Stanley Cup,” says Harry Neale, a former NHL coach and now an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. “And a few others are capable of going a long way into the playoffs.”

But the biggest excitement in the NHL may be about the fortunes of the league itself. Like a hot prospect with a couple of seasons under his belt, the league appears ready to come into its own. It has secured long-term labor peace with its players and game officials and signed a five-year network TV deal with Los Angeles-based Fox Broadcasting for coverage in the United States. And it is drawing new fans from the in-line skating boom. Suddenly, Canada’s game is turning up in episodes of popular TV shows such as Seinfeld and Friends, and as a backdrop to an increasing number of TV commercials. The once-gawky NHL now unblushingly bills itself as The Coolest Game on Earth, and no one is laughing, not even the man who gave the world Bart Simpson and Melrose Place. “We believe that hockey is a coming sport in the United States,” says Chase Carey, the mustachioed president of Fox Broadcasting. “We are happy to be a part of that.”

Canadian NHL teams

To many Canadian fans, however, it seems that the price of the game’s current success in the United States is being paid in Canada. The new NHL proved too rich for Quebec City and Winnipeg; neither had the population base, TV revenues and arena capacities to compete in an era of skyrocketing payrolls. So last May, the Nordiques were sold to Bethesda, Md.-based COMSAT Entertainment Group and relocated to Denver, while Winnipeg staved off the Jets’ departure, but only for a year—they are about to be sold to a Minneapolis group.

Last spring, when both cities were trying desperately to hang on to their teams, outraged fans targeted Bettman, suggesting that he and the powerful American team owners were stealing the game from Canadians. Bettman countered that the two franchises were undermined by the economics of big-league sports, not by league policies. But that further riled local fans, who resented the inference that their cities were not “bigleague.” Traditionalists—already reeling from the mere existence of a team called the Mighty Ducks (named after a Disney movie)—were further

alarmed by the appearance of cartoon robots on their TV screens during Fox broadcasts. And they positively howl at the prospect of the network’s plans to digitally enhance the game pucks to make it easier for new fans to follow the game.

The uproar has subsided a little, but NHL officials are still defensive. Bettman insists that the league bent over backwards to keep the Win-

nipeg and Quebec teams in Canada, on the condition that someone step up with enough cash to support the franchises. No one did. “In Winnipeg, the team is there for another year because we didn’t force it out in May, when it would have been over,” he says. “We let the city and the province and all the local people try their solution, which even by their standards fell short.” Still, the league had good reason to avoid spoiling the hockey climate in a country that last season supplied 62.3 per cent of its players. ‘We do not want to do anything to diminish our presence in Canada,” Bettman said, “or the desire of kids in Canada to become NHL players.”

In Denver, the Avalanche was preceded into town by a real natural disaster. A freak late-summer blizzard blew through the Rocky Mountain city on Sept. 20, ripping limbs off thousands of trees and cutting power, cable and telephone lines to many areas of the city. By game day,

however, all that was left of the snow was a glistening cap on the Rockies to the west. And while most neighborhood sidewalks were still piled high with fallen branches, services had been restored and Denverites were again filling the outdoor cafés on 16th Street and the jogging paths along the South Platte River.

Denver is a strong sports market, but skeptics wonder if there is room in fans’ hearts and wallets for hockey in a city that is obsessed with its football team (the Broncos), in love with its overachieving baseball team (the Rockies) and steadfastly supportive of its basketball team (the Nuggets). The fact that about 5,000 ticket holders for the Sept. 25 preseason game opted instead to stay home and watch the Rockies play the Dodgers in Los Angeles for first place demonstrated the Avalanche’s precarious place on their priority list.

Some of those concerns were dispelled when the then-unnamed franchise sold

12.000 season tickets in the first three weeks after the purchase. By comparison, the Nordiques had only 7,200 subscribers last season. At Jackson’s Hole, a sprawling sports bar across from the baseball park, Coors Field, patrons seemed impressed by the fact that, unlike an expansion club, the Avalanche was one of the top teams in the NHL. “Hockey’s going to work because the Avalanche is a good, young team, and it’s going to be good for years to come,” said Jim Chier, manager of an industrial products distributor in Colorado Springs. Others are buoyed by the success of the Denver Grizzlies of the International Hockey League, who last year drew more than

12.000 fans per game at McNichols and have since moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. “If the Grizzlies experience is any indication, I think hockey is going to be huge,”

I said Amy Shepherd, a 25-year-old fan from x nearby Central City. “Denver is just an unJ believable sports town.”

° Many of the ex-Nordiques arrived in Denver a month before training camp to get their families settled. But after a year of speculation about the franchise’s future, they were eager to experience the exuberant potential of one of America’s great boom towns. “The economy is better here than in Quebec, that’s for sure,” says Lefebvre. “Everywhere you look, there’s construction, buildings going up. Even though we’re the fourth sport here, I think there will be more opportunities here than there were in Quebec.” Most players have found homes in leafy suburbs where the neighbors are friendly and curious about where they can get tickets. “We tried not to let it bother us last year, but it was always in the back of our minds,” the Avalanche captain, Joe Sakic, said last week after practice at McNichols. “Now that the ownership is stable, I think we’ll have a lot of fun. There’s a lot of things to do here, other sports teams we can go see. And there’s a little less pressure—we aren’t under the microscope as much as in Quebec.”

Some players and coaches are still adjusting to their surroundings, partly because Denver (population 2.1 million) is so much bigger than Que-

U.S. NHL teams

bec City (646,000). ‘Traffic in Quebec was four cars stopped at the same stoplight on the way to the rink,” the team’s coach, Marc Crawford, laughs. “This is a big city, and I have to work my schedule around how long it’s going to take me to drive to work. But we’ll get used to it.”

Sitting in his modestly appointed office 47 floors above midtown Manhattan, the commissioner is barely able to stay put in his chair. In conversation, the 43-year-old Bettman, an energetic man with piercing blue eyes, is gregarious, enthusiastic and occasionally so demonstrative that he ends up teetering on the edge of his seat.

Gone is the grim expression he wore throughout last year’s trying lockout, imposed by team owners in their bid to force players to accept a new collective bargaining agreement that included a cap on salaries.

(After five months, the owners settled for a cap on rookie salaries.) Now,

Bettman brims with the infectious optimism of a former basketball executive who believes that hockey’s time has come. “We are doing the things that need to be done to grow a major sports league,” he says.

In some respects, Canadian teams are better off in Bettman’s NHL. Canadian teams share equally in all revenues from the league’s TV contracts with Fox and ESPN; this season, for instance, the seven remaining Canadian franchises will each reap $1.6 million from the five-year, $210-million Fox deal. Teams also split the proceeds from licensed product sales and new corporate sponsors, which have increased dramatically. Since 1992, the NHL’s merchandise sales have nearly doubled, to more than $1 billion annually. Though well below the $4 billion worth of sales registered by both the National Football

League and the National Basketball Association, hockey’s share of the market is increasing faster than the other sports, says Richard Dudley, senior vice president of NHL Enterprises Inc. “We have a great game and great players,” Dudley adds. ‘We have a game that is played internationally, and also in the streets by kids on in-line skates. So that’s a lot to work with.”

Only a year after Bettman locked them out, the players are still somewhat wary. But they, too, are sharing in the new spoils. Wayne Gretzky was signed to represent Campbell’s Soup when the company decided to sponsor the league. And Nike, the U.S. athletic shoe giant and league sponsor, signed Boston Bruins star Cam Neely and Detroit Red Wings’ Sergei Fedorov to multiyear deals to promote the company’s new line of hockey equipment. “The NHL needs to use guys like Sergei and Neely,” says Blues star Hull. “Until now, it has been Wayne, Wayne and more Wayne, but there are a lot of charismatic players around, and if the league is going to make it big, it is going to have to use more than Wayne to spread it around.”

Until recently, hockey was the poor cousin of the four major North American sports. As recently as 1991, the league was without even a cable TV contract in the United States, and until the Fox deal, had not been on U.S. network TV since 1974-1975. And if there were any corporate sponsors, few knew about them. “It used to be more like a fraternity, while now it is run like a business,” says Neale. “You can’t just open the doors and yell out the window that there’s a hockey game on. That worked in Canada for years, but not any longer.”

With Bettman’s appointment in February, 1993, the league turned from private club to marketing machine. The league has signed

18 corporate sponsors, including Nike, brewer Anheuser Busch and Coca-Cola, all of whom are required as a condition of sponsorship to advertise on game telecasts or to support some other league event, such as the allstar weekend. “We look for marketing partners who are interested in promoting hockey and our players in a whole host of ways,” Bettman says. “What we are trying to do is create programs so that there is more visibility for hockey than there has ever been before. Helping sponsors sell their products makes us more visible.”

Now that the collective agreements and TV and marketing programs are in place, the NHL is intent on building the sport’s audience. A key to that was working out an arrangement with the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Olympic Committee and the NHL Players Association to enable the league’s stars to compete in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. As well, the league hired former soccer executive Guido Tognoni to run its new European offices. The NHL would like to establish a pan-European minor league in the next few years, and it would also like to boost its continental licensed products sales.

At home, the NHL has a lot riding on Denver. The Nordiques’ relocation was the commissioner’s first opportunity to strategically redraw the NHL map in a way that extends the league’s marketing reach. ‘There’s no doubt that the Nordiques’ move to Denver will help us in the ratings,” said Fox spokesman Vince Wladika. “The basis of getting a good TV rating is having a winning team, which Denver now has, and Denver is the 18th-ranked television market in the United States.”

In hockey, however, TV is only part of the financial puzzle, and Bettman’s critics say the NHL has no business going back to cities such as Denver and Minneapolis, where previous NHL franchises failed. But Bettman insists that market conditions and team owners have changed from when the old Colorado Rockies left for New Jersey in 1982, or the North Stars left Minneapolis for Dallas in 1993. And unlike past regimes, the current league management will not allow franchises to move into new markets without having arena leases, season ticketsales, TV deals and corporate partnerships locked up in advance.

The NHL’s expansion is not over yet. And the winning cities are not likely to be in Canada—despite the fervent desires of fans in Hamilton. That hockey hotbed has the misfortune of being too close to both Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., where established NHL franchises jealously protect their territories. The next moves, possibly within two years, will probably be to Atlanta, Phoenix, Ariz., and maybe even Nashville, Tenn., a prospect that may not please Canadians but should keep filling NHL coffers—and keep giving hockey a place in the sun.

JAMES DEACON