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The NHL In New York: Down For The Count?

...And Should The Rest Of Us Care?


Updated January 22, 2004
As the National Hockey League flounders in the New York area - Rangers stink again; Islanders are wobbly again; Stanley Cup champion Devils play to acres of empty seats - there is much talk that the prolonged dysfunction of the New York franchises is a tragedy. A healthy big-time sports outfit, it is said, must succeed in media capitals like Manhattan.

But why should the rest of us buy that line?

The NHL's disappearing profile in the New York area is outlined in yesterday's Times. "With the league headquarters in Midtown, the Rangers, the Devils and the Islanders make up the Bermuda Triangle of the sport," writes Joe Lapointe. "It disappears here, a mere decade after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and spurred a huge surge of interest."

Responding to the article, Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion declares, "Friends, our sport is in deep trouble on the professional level. As to who can save it, I'm at a loss to say."

Tom Benjamin at Canucks Corner Weblog also links the state of the Rangers to the state of pro hockey. "It isn't good for the league if New York is the annual NHL joke," he wrote on January 8. "If the organization in New York is Mickey Mouse, the league is Mickey Mouse."

Not to me it isn't, and not to most hockey fans, I suspect.

The notion that a pro sport "needs" Manhattan or Chicago or Los Angeles is a creation of the business tycoons who own franchises. Sports leagues want to succeed in the biggest cities because that's where the national media agenda is set, and that's where the marketing and advertising agenda is fueled. If your game is the talk of Broadway, everyone shares in the windfall.

Fair enough. But if you're not a Rangers' or Islanders' fan, and if you do not make money, directly or indirectly, from the NHL, why should you care about New York?

It's a hell of a town, as they say, and a game at Madison Square Garden is one of the great experiences in hockey. But this idea that the Rangers are somehow more important than the Predators or Avalanche (or the Jets or Nordiques) is nothing more than a myth forced upon us by fat cats looking to line their wallets.

In fact, from a fan's perspective, there is every reason to believe that pro hockey would be better off if it abandoned pretensions to the big time and accepted its status as a regionally-based game, assuming its rightful place on the second or third tier of popular American sports. That would be great news for anyone who thinks there is more to hockey than revenue streams and branding opportunities.

If the Rangers, Islanders and Devils closed shop tomorrow it would be a disaster for the NHL and its business agenda, wiping the league off the North American sports map and reducing it to a cottage industry.

And what would that mean to the average hockey devotee outside the Bermuda Triangle? Not much.

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