Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to Save the NHL, Part 2, A Tale of Two Teams

As an example of how my proposal of setting up a relegation-promotion system for the NHL might prove successful, I offer a "tale of two teams."

The Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL is one of the oldest and most established teams in that league. It has known its share of success over the years, and still has the second most Stanley Cups in league history, shared with the Detroit Red Wings, and trailing only the Montreal Canadiens. Even if you are not a fan of the NHL, you know of the Maple Leafs. Sadly, you probably know more of the futility of their recent history. Since 1967, the Leafs have not won a championship, which makes their accomplishments all the more impressive in their first 40 or so years of history. The recent 42 years ( and counting ) is an embarrassment.

The Leafs are, despite their poor record, an immensely popluar team. Although claims of being "Canada's team" may be exaggerated, there is no disputing the fact that Leafs fans exist across the continent, and show up in impressive numbers at other teams' home games. This loyalty has made the Leafs a relatively rich team, financially, and causes them to be the subject of an inordinate amount of media coverage, certainly more than their woeful performance would seem to justify.

Critics of the Leafs, and there are many, point to this financial and media success as the reason for the on-ice futility. The argument goes that, as long as the building is packed, as long as merchandise is eagerly bought, as long as the media continues to broadcast their games and keep them in a high profile, the Leafs do not have to compete as fiercely as lesser teams, who frantically struggle to get a share of the attention of media and fans against great competition.
This lack of a "survivor" mentality has caused the Leafs to get fat and complacent. It is hard to argue against this logic.

Consider now the case of Newcastle United. This team shares many characteristics with the Toronto Maple Leafs. United play in a city full of rabid fans who worship the team and its players. United has a storied history, beginning as a top flight team in 1892, and having won the FA Cup six times. Like the Maple Leafs, however, United's last championship was in the distant past, 1927. Despite this futile record, United supporters, known as the "Toon Army" fill St. James' Park in huge numbers: crowds of more than 50,000 for Premiership games are routine.

Last year, the on-going futility of United resulted in relegation to the Football League Championship, which is a second-tier league below the Premiership. It was a terrible blow to the Toon Army, but they continue to come out to support their team, with crowds of 35,000 to over 40,000 in attendance.

The similarities of both teams is eerie. Both have loyal fans, and command much media attention. They have both suffered through poor ownership, bad management, over-rated coaches and players, and bad luck.

Where they differ is their situation in their leagues. The Leafs continue along much as they always do: languishing in the bottom of the league, full of bluster about how they will improve and compete... some day, yet still drawing huge crowds of adoring fans. Nothing, it seems, will shake them out these doldrums.

United, on the other hand, have suffered relegation and diminished crowds as a result of the demotion. The result.... United is tearing it up in the second league. They sport the best record in that league, and entertain hopes of promotion for next year. In other words, they have something to gain, something to prove, something to play for. It could be argued, of course, that they are merely the best of a bad lot, and will continue to flounder in the better league next season. That is not the point. The point is that at least they have something to strive for, and something to offer their current fans. Hope reigns eternal in Geordieland: there is always a mythical promised land where the Magpies will eventually become one of the Premiership's top teams. They are actually playing towards that goal.

With the Leafs, it is a hollow hope. There is no sign of change or improvement any time soon. Perhaps a relegation into an imaginary NHL 2 would give them a type of incentive to actually try to improve. There is no substitute for fear of not surviving to make a team re-invent itself.

The time has come for the Leafs to operate like it won't survive unless it changes its fundamental beliefs, plans, and actions.

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