The turnaround story of the NHL is somewhat legendary. It wasn't five years ago that the National Hockey League was in dire straights. Scoring was low and games were boring. Goalies were padded up like Sherman Tanks to stop one player--Wayne Gretzky. Fights were commonplace and nasty. Many mid-market franchises served as little more than farm teams for the five or six cities actually willing to pay for quality players.
In the meantime, franchises abandoned their historical hometowns for more lucrative pastures. Gone were the Hartford Whalers, Minnesota North Stars, Winnipeg Jets, and the Quebec City Nordiques. Teams were created and relocated in new cities, away from the Great White North and into the sun belt.
So where did all this lead? A league that nearly destroyed itself.
The games were--let's put this bluntly--boring. With no scoring but plenty of fistfights, hockey descended into a parody of itself. And with nearly a third of the teams either brand new or recently relocated, loyal fans were hard to come by. The NHL's idea was to crack the South, an area not exactly known as hockey fans; they presumably saw how popular football, basketball, and baseball were in the new franchises, most in the South, and assumed hockey would be successful as well. In addition, the promise of a population boom--a true demographic shift that continues--would lead these teams to find their financial footing just in time. But the fans never showed up, and even playoff runs left plenty of empty seats. ESPN finally gave up and dropped their coverage of the games, a death knell for a pro sports organization.
The lockout saved the NHL. It introduced a salary cap--making small-market teams viable--as well as a multitude of rule changes to make the game more exciting. In addition, the advent of HD television has made hockey more presentable; while all sports are better in HD, the impact it has on hockey is fairly strong. Seeing similarly-dressed players following a nearly-invisible rubber disc around an ice rink is tough enough, but with HD it becomes not only doable but actually visually orgasmic. There's no better way that Best Buy can move product than to slap on a hockey game.
Don't get me wrong--hockey is still struggling. They are by far the lowest-watched sport of the four major sports, though they are (quite obviously) much more popular in Canada. In addition, hockey fans tend to be wealthier, so from a financial standpoint hockey has some extra breathing room. And several teams (namely the Phoenix Coyotes, currently owned by the NHL itself due to financial issues) are on the verge of collapse.
Then again, I'm of the opinion that there is a lot more room for capacity in all sports; one day soon I'll lay out my Awesome Plan for Expanding the NFL. But for the NHL, the following needs to happen:
1) Get Back To Its Roots. I don't mind trying to crack a new market: it only makes valid business sense. But does there really need to be five teams in the south, seven if you also count Phoenix and Dallas? I would like to remind everyone that there are only six teams in all of Canada, the birthplace of the damn sport. So rip up some of the less successful teams in the South (Hi, Nashville!) and move them back north.
2) Expand to 32 teams. Yes, I know, this pretty much contradicts what I've been saying--why dilute the team pool with more teams and causing more financial distress? I say that the talent pool isn't as shallow as people think, and baseball has proved that small-market teams with little potential to be contenders can still be profitable. With the salary cap, this may actually work out better than MLB.
3) Speaking of which: There is an entire talent pool of above-average and outright awesome players...in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. The NHL is vastly superior, but it's not always going to be that way. Even now, many top Russian players are being lured away with huge contracts to play in Russia. Even the European Leagues have talent. None of these leagues are nearly at the top, but they're not minor league, either. There is a lot of room to attract good players and fill out rosters for new teams without diminishing quality.
4) Get back ESPN. This may actually happen fairly soon; the contract with the awful Versus will be up eventually, and the NHL has fixed a lot of problems since they got dropped. However, Versus has gotten some pretty good ratings, so there may be a bit of a bidding battle. For the NHL to grow, though, it needs a professional media outlet that everyone is devoted to, and Versus isn't it.
What teams would be the new teams? I have no problem vacating (at first) Nashville and Phoenix. (Other cities can be reviewed as time goes on; many of the newly minted teams need some time to establish themselves before the plug gets pulled.) Moving teams back to Winnipeg and Quebec City, and adding one to Hamilton, will probably be the top priority. Yeah, populations there are small, but they are MAD about hockey up there. (Plus they don't really have basketball or baseball to compete with, and while Canadian football is popular it's not THAT popular.) Adding teams to Seattle or New England (Back to Hartford? Providence, perhaps?) could also be viable, though Midwestern candidates like Kansas City or Cleveland may also work. (Incidentally, so would Las Vegas, but pro sports in general wants to avoid that city like the plague.)
Of course, it may be too soon to tell for any of this. Last year the Phoenix Coyotes were almost liquidated; this year, they made the playoffs and are more stable, and next year they may sell out every game. Meanwhile the Buffalo Sabres or the Minnesota Wild may go from stable to the bankruptcy court in a few years. Unlike the NFL, which is so wildly popular the only way to lose money is to actually physically lose the burlap sacks of cash with dollar signs painted on it on the trip to the rich person bank, or the MLB, with its wickedly complicated but lucrative New York Yankee Welfare Luxury Tax and Television Revenue Sharing Plan (and also with a lot more localized loyalty), the NHL has a lot of moving parts that hasn't settled yet. On the one hand, that's scary, since it leaves a lot of clubs on the balance; on the other hand, it gives them a lot of room to maneuver. We shall see.