NOTE: I couldn’t decide what to call my column series so I purposely left the “placeholder” as the title.
Last month, Greg Wyshynski of ESPN wrote about how the National Hockey League needs to bring back neutral site games. The NHL, of course, already has some being played over in Europe and they’ve historically had them for pre-season contests, but not since the 1990’s have they been featured in the regular season. And that’s unfortunate.
Before we get into how this could work, why it might not work and my thoughts on the whole thing, first an education, courtesy of Wyshynski.
In 1992, the NHL farmed out 24 regular-season games to neutral sites, the result of a rare collective bargaining win for the players (pre-Gary Bettman, of course) that bumped the season to 84 games and had them split profits with the owners for those contests.
Cities such as Oklahoma City, Cincinnati, Hamilton, Dallas, Sacramento and Atlanta all had the opportunity to host neutral site games during the experiment’s two-year span. As Wyshynski pointed out, these were strategic locations and the NHL knew what it was doing when they selected those cities.
It’s no coincidence that five of the 13 cities that hosted neutral site games in 1992-94 eventually received NHL franchises: Miami, Atlanta and Minneapolis through expansion; Dallas and Phoenix through relocation. The experiment, in some ways, was a trial balloon.
There are multiple reasons why the games weren’t overly successful, and you can read his piece if you want to learn some of those reasons, but it could work if brought back. In a perfect world, having games in non-NHL cities would be a wonderful thing. If scheduled correctly, the games could become the lead sports story on those cities’ local newscasts and in their local newspapers. They would help grow the game, educate non-traditional markets on the sport and give the NHL a spotlight it wouldn’t otherwise receive in those markets.
Look, I know it’s “different strokes for different folks” but I truly don’t understand how somebody can attend a hockey game and not become at least a casual fan afterward. And growing the fanbase is kind of the point, right?
The NFL, MLB and NBA don’t have to “grow the game” because they’re not subject to the same handicap the NHL is. All over the United States, kids grow up with basketball courts on their school playgrounds, there are city parks built around baseball diamonds that are open to the public and football just flat-out owns the American sports landscape. Essentially, anyone can go play any of those sports at any time, on specifically designed fields and courts, at little to no charge.
Hockey, however, is predominantly played by kids who grow up in cold climates where frozen bodies of water aren’t out of the ordinary or, at the very least, have access to a rink. That’s great for the northern states, but what about the other 72% of America? The sheer nature of the sport leaves gigantic chasms of regions — and socio-economic statuses, really (check out page 16 of this study) — where hockey is not on the top of peoples’ minds, let alone accessible to people at a moment’s notice. Therefore, the game is behind the eight ball right from the outset.
So how does the League make adequate steps to chip away at that handicap? One way is to bring back neutral site games — and not just in the pre-season either but regular season contests. An exhibition game leaves too many open excuses available to coaches and teams. Star players could easily be held out of the lineup and, of course, the team probably wouldn’t have a presence in the city until the day of the game. If it’s a regular season contest, however, those things are less likely to happen as the games mean more and aren’t just auditions for fringe players.
By the way, Wyshynski is correct. There is no way the owners would give up a home game to make a goodwill gesture like this happen. The only feasible option, which is hardly ideal, would be to increase the current — and already far too long — 82-game NHL schedule. Like Wyshynski’s idea to benefit CTE research with the proceeds from the neutral site games, shortening the schedule at all is a pipe dream, so we’re stuck with the painful reality of tacking on.
Nevertheless, let’s take a look at some possible Western Conference match-ups and how they could play these contests while still being somewhat regional.
- Vancouver Canucks v. San Jose Sharks in Seattle, Washington
- Los Angeles Kings v. Anaheim Ducks in San Diego, California
- Vegas Golden Knights v. Arizona Coyotes in Reno, Nevada
- Minnesota Wild v. Winnipeg Jets in Fargo, North Dakota
- Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars in Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Chicago Blackhawks vs. St. Louis Blues in Fort Wayne, Indiana
Let’s take that Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars game for a second. It would be a regional match-up of sorts with star players to market in Nathan MacKinnon and Tyler Seguin. Fans in Tulsa who probably wouldn’t otherwise spend money on NHL merchandise would now have an excuse to do so and for teams they have a realistic chance of rooting for. Also, it would stand to reason that the ECHL’s Tulsa Oilers would get a bump in ticket sales, attendance and publicity thanks to the buzz around the event. The local fans win, the local team wins and the sport wins.
While logic supports the idea, I’ll admit that I want neutral site games brought back for one reason and one reason only: a personal one.
After all, you’re reading this because of a neutral site game.
It was the summer of 1989. I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area and had gone to plenty of Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants baseball games, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings basketball games and even a San Francisco 49ers playoff football game thanks to a substitute teacher in 7th grade who was scalping tickets to his classroom full of students — but that’s another story for another time.
Before the internet, venues would mail you a calendar — yes, physical mail. Like, in an envelope and everything — with all of their events on it. That summer, we had received the Oakland Arena’s third quarter schedule and right there on September 29 was a pre-season NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins. I asked my dad if we could go and, naturally, he wanted to know why I wanted to watch a sport I knew nothing about and had very little interest in. “So I can say I’ve seen all four major sports in person,” I said.
He caved. We went.
I recall three distinct memories from that night. First, a player took a shot from around center ice and the puck glanced clean off the crossbar and struck somebody in the stands so hard they needed medical attention. Second, I ate nachos and it wasn’t until we got all the way out to the car to make the hour-long drive home that I realized I’d left my retainer in the nacho tray. Finally, I’d never been so in love with a sport. As I said, I’d been to dozens of sporting events of all types but nothing captivated my continued attention like hockey did. I must have had a smile on my face the entire ride home.
From that point on, I soaked up whatever information I could. There was no internet and I lived in pre-Sharks Northern California, so information was scarce. I remember going into a Tower Records store to look for some new music when I discovered their massive periodical section. It seemed to span an entire wall and that was where I became familiar with The Hockey News, Hockey Digest and The National, a short-lived daily sports newspaper that lasted less than two years but was a dream come true for an eclectic sports fan like me.
Then, later, I walked into my local Raley’s grocery store and they were selling hockey cards. I couldn’t believe it. I bought them all and it was on those cards that I learned who Brian Propp was and discovered what an amazing mustache Lanny McDonald had and pondered whether Joe Mullen and Brian Mullen were actually related and saw that Mario Lemieux was once one shy of scoring 200 points in a single season.
Eventually, Beckett started publishing a hockey card price guide and I became a subscriber before they even printed their first issue (Wayne Gretzky on the front cover, Patrick Roy on the back, of course). Through that, I eventually learned about prospects thanks to Upper Deck producing World Junior Championship subsets in their main sets. I got so enthralled with the prospects that I ended up creating a draft board above my bed, printing off each team’s logo on my parents’ old dot matrix printer and using packaging tape to stick them up, in draft order, above my headboard. Once drafted, I’d add that prospect’s World Juniors card in a hard plastic sleeve next to it. It became a relentless quest for me if I didn’t have a prospect’s card to acquire one.
While talking with a kid at school, he told me he played roller hockey at the local rink. I had no idea that was even a thing and immediately asked if I could play. He said they needed players so I joined the next week and played at both Roller Haven in Antioch (now Paradise Skate Roller Rink) and Marina Skate in Pittsburg (no longer there) until I finally started playing on ice in Vacaville several years later. There, I ended up scoring the championship-winning goal the season after my team came in dead last. I loved the game so much that I started coaching a youth roller hockey team and became a referee up in Vacaville where I was officiating as many as four games a night.
Fast forward 29 years from that Jets/Penguins tilt and here I am living my dream, covering the Nashville Predators for the team’s radio network, writing for the flagship station and stringing for the Associated Press’ radio department. I am blessed to be around the game I love, in a city I love, all because somebody put a neutral site contest in Oakland, California in 1989. Think of all the kids in other non-traditional markets who were going to write about, play or love sports anyway and could discover hockey earlier in their lives simply because the NHL decided to invest in its future like this.
The thought may have come out of nowhere but you’re onto something, Wysh. Count me in.
SPECIAL THANKS to Stuart McCommish at the NHL offices in Toronto who unearthed the research on the 1989 and 1990 pre-season games in Oakland, California that, otherwise, I never would’ve been able to find.