USA Hockey Reaping Rewards Of NHL Expansion

Did Gary Bettman have a vision when he promoted expansion of the NHL or was he just looking at dollar signs?  The answer probably depends upon who you talk to. 

Most Canadians feel that Bettman is the devil incarnate himself and that his only purpose in life is to ruin their beloved sport.  But since the league commissioner took office in 1993, more and more American kids are playing hockey than ever before and the increased visibility of the league throughout the nation has helped USA Hockey achieve unprecedented growth and success.

Not only have Americans been winning on the ice, more and more of their players are being drafted into the league.  In the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, a record 11 USA born players were selected in the first round.  Ten more were chosen in the second. 

By time the draft was completed, a total of 59 American players were drafted compared to 99 from Canada, 20 from Sweden, and just eight from Russia.  The gap in talent between north and south of the border is narrowing and the trend will most likely continue. 

It's important to note that all of these Americans are not necessarily coming from traditional markets.  Two first rounders, Emerson Etem and Beau Bennett, are products of Southern California. 

Would these youngsters even be playing the sport if the NHL never expanded to Los Angeles?

Critics proclaim that Canadians financially support the game in floundering markets.  They have a valid point in saying that attendance has been an issue for some teams, but more and more people are watching on television and the game is more popular in the states than ever.

Perhaps the worst U.S. economy in decades had something to do with paid attendance in some markets this past season?

These critics also do not mention the fact that some of the revenue sharing money comes from profits made during the playoffs and more often than not, Americans are shelling out five or six times the normal rate for tickets to watch those games.

Our friends north of the border never talk about Ottawa's financial troubles earlier this decade and how they needed to be bailed out by the league.  Supposedly, those types of things only happen in new, non-traditional markets.

Logic dictates that for any new market to truly be successful, it probably takes a generation or two to pass by.  When a Thrashers fan has kids and they start playing the sport and grow up loving the game as well as the team, that's when you can start to see consistent attendance numbers, and that takes time.

The Kings started out in Los Angeles in 1967.  Now that a generation or two has past, you can see the progress.  Same thing for the Dallas Stars who have achieved much success in the deep South.  No one is calling for their contraction.

But when teams only have a decade or so to make their footprint in a non-traditional market, the odds are against immediate success.  Winning and losing also makes a difference.  Florida and Atlanta are strangers to the postseason and that doesn't help their attendance.  

Proper franchise management is vital.  Why did a thriving market like Ottawa have financial problems?  Poor management.

Couple poor management along with a non-traditional market, (Phoenix), and that spells disaster.

Bottom line, hockey is an addicting enough sport so that it can work anywhere if given time and if run properly.  It won't be long before a first round pick in the NHL Entry Draft will hail from North Carolina.  This year they had two local players selected in the OHL draft and one player was selected third overall in the USHL draft. 

That's right, local kids born and bred in North Carolina are being drafted in the OHL.   

Canadians should be happy and proud that their sport is being embraced throughout the continent, even in unlikely places where temperatures make it difficult, if not impossible, to play the game outside.   While Gary Bettman certainly has his faults and has made mistakes, expanding the game to non-traditional markets is not one of them.

Just ask USA Hockey.

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