Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why do some NHL franchises not survive?

At one time in my life, I worked as a sales representative for Cooper Canada who was one of the leading manufacturers of hockey equipment in the history of the sport. My role was that of Professional Team Sales. It was at a time when the WHA (World Hockey Association was also active). That meant that I traveled to a lot of cities in the USA that were fledgling franchises in both leagues. You ended up getting first hand knowledge as to the potential for success or failure of these teams.

As an example, a lot of people put blame on Colleen Howe (Gordie Howe's wife)
for the demise of the Houston Aeros who had won the championship in the WHA that year. That may have been a minor contributing factor (she did make it uncomfortable and had her own office) to the demise of the team and eventually the league but in my experience there were some simple contributing factors to all the teams that failed.

  1. Bad Ownership or Management Decisions
  2. Lack of Fan Interest aka a lousy team
  3. Geographical Location 
Often it was a blend of all three.

Houston was and still is very hot and humid so there aren't many outdoor rinks to be found for local hockey but you can find lots of cowboy bars right in town.

The Denver market now has a reasonably successful franchise in the name of the Avalanche but the first team, the Rockies (before the baseball team of the same name) didn't fair as well. The constant battles between the parachuted in coach Don Cherry and GM, Ray Miron (lol I typed moron in first by accident) are well-documented in his many Coach's Corner presentations (sometimes rants) on Hockey Night in Canada. Ray was a good yes-man for the ownership.
Of course, the Rockies were already doomed to some extent by the fact that they were a relocation of a team from the Kansas City market, the Kansas City Scouts (those cuff stripes around the bottom of the pants took a lot of skill to create since they would bunch up the lower cuff. Our equipment designers knew how to cut the original material to compensate for that). I was in Junior Team sales when they got moved to Denver.

You would think that the NHL would have learned something from the first team in Atlanta which was of course, the Atlanta Flames who have moved nicely to the city of Calgary where they have been greatly appreciated despite not having the
best record on the ice. But no they had to try it one more time with the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers who are now the proud second generation of the Winnipeg Jets.

The good thing in Atlanta, for me, was that the Head Trainer, Norm Mackie, always welcomed me into the dressing room with open arms. I do remember a particular incident that was quite funny in retrospect. Their star player, Tom Lysiak, was using one of our newer designed shin pads that was made out of a very light molded foam that replaced all the stitched nylon and leather that was in previous models. It kind of bunched up around the area above his knee so Norm just sicked me on Tom and said see what you can do to fix that.

I took a pair of scissors and cut a few darts out of the bunching material and then heated up the area where your kneecap settles and then I strapped the heated up pair on Tom's legs and told him to just let it sit for a bit. Tom was saying that it was really hot and you could smell the hair burning on his legs. I really didn't know what I was doing but I was the "expert" from the manufacturer after all. Norm introduced me to the legendary Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion which I though was a nice touch. I was a Leaf fan in my youth but I still learned to respect the classy players of the other six teams. Meeting Jean Beliveau was also an honour.

I also got the benefit of getting a pair of prototype goalie pads that didn't quite work out for the Flames primary goalie, Dan Bouchard. Seems the boot section was a little too long for his skates and I had larger feet. It was the first attempt at making pads lighter and more consistent since it was a combination of nylon, foam, felt, leather and still mostly stuffed with deer hair. It was a blessing because my current pair was a customer return that still had part of the deer inside the pads. Got a little skanky when they got wet!

And of course, the first generation of the Winnipeg Jets didn't fair well and moved to the hot climate of Arizona to become the forever in limbo Phoenix Coyotes. 

Did they not learn anything from the first attempt at professional hockey in Phoenix known as the Phoenix Roadrunners? I do remember my predecessor in the pro team position, Harry Abofs (former CFL player) coming back from the first training camp of the Roadrunners with one of their first sweaters. He gave it to me to use to cover my goal equipment. It was something like 8 sizes bigger since the team ordered their sweaters from a football uniform manufacturer. It was a nice light meshy type material that one would find on outdoor uniforms and was a little too breezy for the confines of a hockey rink.

And there was also the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA vintage with Bobby Hull as their primary draw. He said he didn't wear helmets when I offered him a Cooper SK600 when they first came out. 

Can't leave out the California Golden Seals (white skates--C'mon man!!!! which didn't last for long) who became the Cleveland Barons who then merged with the Minnesota North Stars who then became the Dallas Stars and then Minnesota tried it again with the Minnesota Wild. The truth is I had to look that one up. I got really confused because there was also the Cleveland Crusaders and Minnesota Fighting Saints in the former WHA.
Cooper got all of the business from the Golden Seals for gloves since we went out and got a special batch of leather dyed to make them since Cooper marketed leathergoods under the Buxton banner so we knew how to do that. Every other team wore lighter weight nylon gloves that haven't changed much in today's model other than the ridiculously short cuff that we first made for players like Bobby Clarke and Doug Jarvis who had smaller hands. Larry Robinson went the other way and had longer cuffs on his similar to welders gloves. Larry is a bright man and got out of head coaching before it destroyed him.

All of this has been triggered by the current situation in July of 2013 relating to the Phoenix Coyotes. Gary Bettman just won't give up on this one along with the other people in the NHL decision-making assemblage of never-give-up good old boys.

It is really quite simple. If you don't shovel snow in a city more than two times in a given winter, then you should not have an NHL franchise. The only reason hockey works in Florida is all the retired Canadians that frequent their beloved game.

All the NHL teams in the southern USA are doomed to failure as soon as they no longer field a Stanley Cup caliber team. Just fielding a competitive team is not enough. 

I'm not sure there are any good locations left for an NHL franchise with the exception of a second team in the metropolitan Toronto area and possibly Quebec City. Just make real sure that you load the new version of the Nordiques with a whole bunch of Rene's, Pierre's and Jacques if you want to have any chance of success.

And take extra care to have a solid group of owners, managers and coaching staff to make the franchise survive. There is no more room for the Ballard's, Bettman's and other destructive forces for our proud Canadian game. The Americans can borrow our game just as long as they own a snow shovel.

Another story from that era for your reading pleasure.