Hockey should share wealth, like baseball

BY foxsports • January 7, 2009

Hockey's Hall of Fame is located in Toronto, as is one of its most storied franchises. These days, it also is the home of one of the NHL's lesser teams and one of the AHL's as well, and if you're looking for reasons why this sport has such a difficult time getting out of its own way, you may want to start there.

Then move to Montreal. Then New York. And then Philadelphia.

The Maple Leafs came to town last night with a team two points worse than your own, with fewer recognizable stars, too. Tomas Kaberle is on the roster and a Toronto reporter pointed out former Bruin Phil Kessel, but the rest of it had about as much name recognition as a Scrabble game spilled on the floor.

Well, to be fair, there was an Orr.

But not that one.

A fight-filled, 6-2 loss later, the Leafs were four points behind the surging Flyers , who have emerged from among the NHL's bottom feeders recently largely by feeding on them. With their fifth victory in their last seven games, the orange and black pushed over .500 and to within two points of the Canadiens for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia, Montreal, the New York Rangers, Toronto. All are fringe players in the playoff hunt on Jan. 7.

Stated simply, this can't be good for business.

In another time, in an era not that long ago, fans in Toronto would not stand for this, would demand players be traded, coaches be sacked, and most of all, superstars from lesser municipalities be lured away for bloated contracts. This was the formula used for the years leading up to the lockout in 2004, and while it made those in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary whine endlessly about extinction, it was good for cities in which television ratings were measured in millions of homes, not hundreds.

The Flyers followed this formula, of course, signing big-name players from other teams to supplement home-grown stars, paying to keep them all, outspending the Canucks the way the Yankees outspend the Royals. The Flyers did this because they could afford to and because we knew they could afford to. If you doubt this, you must have been overseas during those seasons when bargain-buy goalies like Roman Cechmanek failed us in crunch time, and the Flyers brass, um, heard about it afterwards, and felt it in sluggish summer season-ticket sales.

Which brings us to this realization: The NHL chose the wrong cost-containment mechanism. It should have emerged from the lockout with a luxury-tax/revenue-sharing system like the one in baseball because hockey's structure is much more like baseball's than it is other sports'.

"Absolutely," said Chris Pronger. The newest well-paid Flyer then nodded toward Comcast-Spectacor chairman and Flyers owner Ed Snider. "But I'm not going to tell him that."

NHL teams carry 18 players and use every one of them. Baseball teams carry 25 and do likewise. Each team makes its own local television deal, and those deals vary as wildly as they do in baseball. The Yankees may spend way more on salaries than the Royals do, but they collect hundreds of millions more in television revenue, too. High-revenue teams like the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox have been underwriting the smaller-market teams since baseball's 1994 strike.

Teams that sell out their stadiums and have healthy television contracts can afford to spend more, do spend more, and can attempt to fix their ills quickly. It doesn't guarantee success for all. But far more often than not, it provides baseball's postseason with at least one of its more storied franchises. Most Phillies fans would agree that it was much cooler to watch their team win Game 1 in Yankee Stadium last fall than it was to watch them win Game 1 inside of Tropicana Field the year before.

Isn't there a similar feeling beating one of the NHL's Original Six, Snider was asked.

"I just want to win the game," he said with a smile. "I don't give a [bleep] who we play."

I have no doubt Ed Snider would like to win another Stanley Cup before he dies. I also have no doubt that he favors the system he's operating under over the one in baseball. As long as he spends $56.8 million on salaries — this season's cap — no one can argue he didn't try to win.

But put him in a system that allows him to overspend and pay a luxury tax? Well, just take a look at the outrage over the Phillies' swap of stud pitchers over the last month. The baseball team will spend in excess of $140 million next season, but was still called cheap by some.

The Maple Leafs still sell out their home games. So do the Flyers and the Bruins and the Habs. They have big TV deals. "Their fans show up in every arena," said Montreal-born Flyer Ian Laperriere. You see 38,112 standing in the cold of Fenway Park for a glimpse of a game between two of hockey's name brands, you see promise.

You see the emotion on the ice and in the stands last night for a game between two struggling, storied teams, you can't help feeling that too much is being left on the table.

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