With the commencement of a new NHL season, Gary Bettman’s wish for sunbelt stability may be about to come true-at least in Tampa Bay.
“It’s too easy to say we’re going to paint this thing with a broad brush and that the sun belt doesn’t work. That’s not true,” said Bettman in a CBC interview.
Particularly during his feud with former Phoenix Coyotes owner Jim Moyes and Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie, the NHL commissioner has been adamant in his assertion that, with stable ownership, the NHL can indeed be a success throughout the U.S.
Ever since new Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik took the franchise reigns in February, he has made all the right moves to lead one to believe that he is indeed the stable ownership the franchise has been longing for.
The Lightning have struggled both on and off the ice in recent years, and an ongoing spat between dual owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie was well documented.
Yet with Vinik, singular ownership has translated into directive clarity.
In what was the summers blockbuster front-office acquisition, the Boston Billionaire signed Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman as his new general manager.
With the organization on new found stable ground, Yzerman began the retooling process.
The former Red Wings great signed Guy Boucher as his head coach. Boucher led the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Cup finals in the American hockey league last season. Known as a talented teacher and communicator, the Notre-Dame du Lac, Quebec native is a rising star on the NHL coaching scene.
Yzerman then signed long time Lightning great Martin St.Louis to a four year extension, all but assuring that the 2004 Hart Trophy winner will finish his career with in Tampa.
Perhaps his biggest moves were acquiring star forward Simon Gagne via trade, and signing free agent goaltender Dan Ellis.
In Gagne, Tampa Bay adds a winger who can score goals yet is also defensively responsible, fitting well into Yzerman’s blueprint for success. Gagne is also expected to play on Vincent Lecavalier’s wing, and it is hoped that the former Flyer will help rekindle Lecavalier’s offensive flair.
The result is a rejuvenated franchise who many experts feel are once again playoff contenders, some even going so far as to forecast the Lighting as a legitimate threat to dethrone the Washington Capitals as Southeast Division champions.
In defense of Gary Bettman and league owners, the NHL’s sunbelt crusade is a complicated endeavor.
Major League baseball had the distinct advantage of having a strong foundation throughout the U.S before they ever expanded to Florida or Arizona.
If the NHL wants to succeed in the southern U.S, it has to grow the game. To accomplish that, to develop a fan base that will follow teams through success and failure, it has to allow time for people to learn the game, to play the game, to LIVE the game.
This can’t be rushed.
Compound that with the fact that Phoenix, Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay have all endured long periods of on-ice futility early in their respective franchise lives, it’s no surprise that attendance figures have been a disappointment.
If you want to be successful in non-traditional markets, which the NHL obsessively does, you have to be committed for the long haul- much to the chagrin of many a passionate Canadian hockey fan.
But inevitably, given sufficient time and stable ownership, evidence of finanancial growth will be needed.
If not provided, it will expose a major flaw in Bettman’s theory, and consequently, the NHL’s plans.
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Written by Daniel Maloney