Enthusiasm Cools for Hockey’s Foray Into the South

SLAP SHOT
Enthusiasm Cools for Hockey’s Foray Into the South
By JEFF Z. KLEIN and LEW SERVISS
The New York Times
Published: February 10, 2008

Almost 20 years ago, the N.H.L. embarked on a master plan to expand into the Sun Belt. The idea was to add teams in nontraditional hockey markets and, in the jargon of the day, increase the N.H.L.’s television footprint and make it popular across the United States.

But today many of the league’s Sun Belt teams are enduring attendance problems, plummeting local television ratings and talk of franchise shifts. With N.H.L. clubs thriving in Canada and in traditional hockey cities in the northern United States, the league’s longstanding Southern strategy may have run its course.

“It was a noble experiment,” said Drew Dorweiler of the Montreal valuation and accounting firm Wise, Blackman. “But five years from now, I can see quite a few Sun Belt teams relocating. At the least, the league will be short a couple.”

Evidence that Southern teams are struggling abounds. Local TV viewership for the Atlanta Thrashers in the first half of the season was down 50 percent from last year and in Dallas, Tampa Bay and Phoenix it has dropped by 29 to 35 percent. (It rose by 50 to 114 percent in Detroit, St. Louis and Minnesota.)

The Nashville Predators came close to leaving town recently after missing several attendance benchmarks associated with their arena lease. And according to Forbes magazine, four of the league’s five least valuable
franchises are in southerly locales: Nashville, Washington, Phoenix and Atlanta.

“There have been problems with a lot of teams in nontraditional markets since the late ’90s,” Dorweiler said. “Except for brief periods when a Florida or a Carolina has a Stanley Cup run, there just isn’t enough interest
in the sport to make it work. There comes a point when the losses become too much, and teams are put on the block.”

The Dallas Stars are the only warm-weather team estimated by Forbes to be in the N.H.L.’s top quarter in terms of value.

“The Stars have done a great job of attracting people, largely because of the experience at the arena,” said Michael Rapkoch, president of Sports Value Consulting, a Dallas company that advises professional franchises. “They’ve found the right niche for hockey in Dallas. Other teams in nontraditional hockey markets have to find what fits their particular market.”

Paul Kelly, president of the N.H.L. Players’ Association, said the players want all the clubs to be financially healthy, but “if a franchise is not doing all it can do to maximize revenue, that obviously affects the players.”

“My own belief,” he said, “is that if a team from a nontraditional market has to relocate, it should go to one of
the Canadian cities, like Winnipeg, where it would have the fan support and the revenue streams to do well.”

With the N.H.L. turning increasingly to a receptive audience in Northern Europe, what happens with its efforts to “grow the sport” in America’s southern latitudes remains to be seen.

“We missed the boat 20 years, 25 years ago,” the N.H.L. great Marcel Dionne said last week, speaking on the
Toronto radio station Fan 590 of the league’s efforts to sell hockey in the South. “Keep on trying all you
want,” he added. “It ain’t happening.”

Another Sabre Departing?

The Buffalo Sabres, still reeling from the loss of last year’s co-captains Daniel Brière and Chris Drury, are on
the verge of losing another valuable player: Brian Campbell, their All-Star defenseman.

Campbell, who will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, stopped contract renegotiation talks with the Sabres last month. The club faces a choice as the Feb. 26 trading deadline looms: either deal the swift-skating and clean-playing 28-year-old Campbell for top prospects now, or keep him for a playoff push.

The ninth-place Sabres — last year they won the Presidents’ Trophy for finishing first in the Eastern Conference in the regular season — are just beneath the playoff cutoff in the muddled East.

In Buffalo, the club is taking withering criticism for losing a roll call of top players to free agency — Brière,
Drury, J. P. Dumont, Jay McKee and others — without getting anything in return.

General Manager Darcy Regier said last month that he did not intend to trade Campbell, but he has since acknowledged that a trade is a possibility, and on Friday he told the Buffalo radio station WGR that Feb. 26 is
“an important threshold date that we cannot ignore.”

Welcome Returns

The Ottawa Senators, atop the Eastern Conference all season, slumped badly over the past few weeks in the absence of their injured stars Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. Things seemed dire for the Senators on Tuesday when they lost, 4-3, to Montreal, allowing the Canadiens to pull within 1 point of them.

But Heatley returned Thursday, scoring twice in a 5-4 victory over Florida. And Alfredsson — who has missed six games — was expected to return for Saturday night’s rematch with the Canadiens in Ottawa.

The Senators and the Canadiens will meet three more times before the schedule ends.

For Bragging Rights

The Beanpot tournament is one of those Boston traditions — like the tea party — that doesn’t have much practical value, but it is loaded with symbolism.

The clash of four Boston N.C.A.A. teams comes each year on the first two Mondays of February. Boston University and Boston College have dominated, but there is good news this year for the other two teams, Harvard and Northeastern. Boston University and Boston College met in the first round. B.C. won, 4-3, last Monday before a capacity crowd at TD Banknorth Garden. Attendance exceeded that at any of the three N.H.L. games of the evening, in Newark, in Denver and even a sellout in Edmonton.

Nathan Gerbe’s two goals — one that sent the game to overtime, the other that won it — stopped Boston University’s run of 11 Beanpot titles in 13 years. Boston College, ranked ninth in the nation, will play Harvard, No. 15, on Monday for the 56th Beanpot championship.

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