Saturday, June 4, 2011

Promotion and Relegation in the NHL

Here we go again.  The recent purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers by the True North Sports and Entertainment Group, and the corresponding move back to hockey-desperate Winnipeg this week demonstrates one of the biggest problems that the NHL has - too many teams in too many cities that don't want mediocre teams.  This problem is magnified by both outcries and rallies in Quebec City for the Nordiques and in Hartford for the Whalers to bring teams back to those cities, as well as flagging attendance and death throes from franchises on Long Island, Phoenix and Florida.  In addition to Quebec City and Hartford, there are numerous metropolitan areas that do want major league hockey, as seen by the increasing attendance in the AHL, particularly for certain franchises in Houston, Providence and Hershey.

No celebrating in Atlanta next year?
Part of the NHL's problem lies with the fact that North American sports are unique in the sports world.  Leagues here are formed within a franchise system.  Once a team pays its franchise fee, it remains in that league under that same owner until it folds or is sold.  Teams that don't belong in the league, instead of being banished to another league, are allowed to flounder.  This is not just an NHL problem, as issues with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New Orleans Hornets will attest.  North American sport leagues would rather that a new franchise purchase rights to the team (and line existing owners pockets with franchise fees) and never do anything else, than not pay that franchise fee and have some say in how that franchise is run.  Maybe Bill Simmons was right when he wrote in his recent column - about the Maloof Brothers in Sacramento - that once an owner purchases a house and moves into a neighborhood, that new owner may feel free to disgrace the neighborhood anyway that he wants.  Teams that don't belong in a league remain there, while hungry teams remain in their current situations.

Somewhat foreign to us here in the United States is the European system of league participation - Promotion and Relegation.  While this concept dominates all European leagues, the best example to us here is the Barclays Premier League.  Teams in the top division that finish at the bottom of the league are dropped down (relegated) to the second tier league.  Teams in the second tier league that win their division are brought up (promoted) to the first tier league.  For instance, in 2011-2012, QPR, Norwich City and Swansea City will be joining the Premier League, while West Ham, Blackpool and Birmingham City will be relegated to the second tier.

The concept of Relegation and Promotion will work in the NHL.  The NHL has 30 teams in the league.  The AHL has 30 teams in its league.  Every year, the two worst teams in the NHL are relegated to the AHL and the two top teams in the AHL are promoted to the NHL.  I also believe that certain failing teams int eh AHL are either folded or are placed into a third tier league such as the ECHL.  Let me explain further.

1.  The two worst teams in the NHL this year were the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers.  Next year, these two team would play in the second tier AHL.  Conversely, Binghamton and Houston are vying for the Calder Cup.  These two teams would be called up to the NHL next year.  It doesn't matter who the teams are - the Maple Leafs could have been relegated last year.  Canadiens fans chuckle at the thought.

2.  The salary cap will remain in effect but will include all of the teams in the two leagues.  Instead of a draft for juniors, Europeans and American college players, these players will become free agents, available to be signed by any teams.  The Salary Cap will remain in effect to make sure that all teams have a chance at the next Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby and prevent Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin from determining that THEY want to take their talents to South Beach.  Instead of tanking games at the end of the season in order to draft the next great rookie, teams will still play hard in order to avoid relegation to the AHL.  Everyone wins.

3.  The financial aspect of Relegation and Promotion would have to be worked out.  First, many cities don't have professional-size hockey arenas.  Binghamton, Hershey and Albany would all have to catch up to larger cities.  Another option would be to relegate certain teams in small markets to the ECHL.  In addition, teams that are relegated will need to be compensated for having to be relegated in the first place, since relegation would taint a franchise until that franchise was promoted again.  These payments would be similar to payments made to relegated teams in other leagues.  Promotion bonuses may also be made so those teams that are promoted may hit the ground running.  Maybe the relegation and promotion races could be sponsored (Gillette or Bud Light, maybe?) and that sponsorship money can be used to compensate the teams switching?

4.  Players would remain with their teams, but upon free agency, any of the 60 teams could sign the player.  Affiliate agreements between NHL clubs and AHL clubs would end and NHL clubs would be able to keep two players from the minor leagues.  There would be a dispersal draft of everyone else who were not kept by their original NHL Clubs, or those players would simply remain with their clubs.

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