The NHL will begin its second century with a franchise in Las Vegas, its marketing sights set on China, and its players unhappy that they can’t compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
None of those concepts would have made sense to the men who gathered at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal on Nov. 26, 1917 and created the five-team National Hockey League as an alternative to the National Hockey Association. The representatives of the Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Quebec Bulldogs who attended that meeting _ which led to inaugural games on Dec. 19, 1917 _ could never have imagined the NHL would spread across Canada and the United States to encompass 31 teams.
Until a few years ago the notion of placing a major professional sports team in Las Vegas seemed unlikely, but owner Bill Foley’s willingness to fork over $500 million, the opening of T-Mobile Arena, and Las Vegas’ lure as a tourist destination led the NHL to stake its claim. Between Canadians escaping winter and transplanted northeasterners and midwesterners who live in Las Vegas, the Golden Knights figure to have enough support to carry them through their inevitably bad first few seasons.
The NHL has had success in markets that were considered non-traditional, but China is a new challenge. Eyeing the vast revenue potential in a country whose population exceeds 1.3 billion, the league sent the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks to play exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing. If hockey takes hold, the NHL might find it financially worthwhile to allow players to participate in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters in China. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”
The potential for growth in South Korea is smaller, giving Commissioner Gary Bettman no incentive to halt this season and allow players to represent their homelands at Pyeongchang. The decision didn’t sit well with the rank and file, but Bettman was able to impose his will because Olympic participation wasn’t negotiated with the NHL Players’ Association in the current collective bargaining agreement. The NHL will hold another meaningless All-Star festival instead of promoting the game globally and giving players a chance at gold-medal moments.
Apart from its international focus, the NHL is facing some issues at home.
The Flames broke off negotiations with the city of Calgary over a prospective new arena when they disagreed on a split of costs. The Flames play at the 34-year-old Saddledome.
“They’re not moving this season, but I don’t know how long they can hang on,” Bettman told The Calgary Herald.
The New York Islanders, whose move to Brooklyn has been a bust, submitted a proposal to build an arena near Belmont Park. They can opt out of their lease at Barclays Center in January, as can arena officials.
On the ice, the NHL will strictly enforce slashing rules on the theory that players can make plays and score more goals if their hands aren’t mangled. Teams combined to score an average of 5.54 goals per game last season, up .09 from 2015-16. The league went overboard in enforcing its rules about positioning on faceoffs during exhibition play but eventually pulled back. And players adjusted, as they always do.
In a significant rule change, if a team challenges a goal on the basis that it was offside and is proven wrong, that team will get a delay-of-game penalty but won’t lose its timeout. However, teams still must have a timeout to challenge a potential goal on the basis of goaltender interference. Also, the defensive team can no longer call a timeout after icing the puck.
The season will start without some notable players. Shane Doan retired after spending his entire 21-season career with the Winnipeg Jets/Arizona Coyotes franchise, and Jarome Iginla remains unsigned after a brief stint with the Kings. Jaromir Jagr, the NHL’s second-leading career scorer, wants to play at age 45 and reportedly was in discussion with several teams. He had 16 goals and 46 points in 82 games with Florida last season.
And best of luck to New Jersey center Brian Boyle, who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in mid-September but hoped to play in the Devils’ opener. Good health too to Chicago winger Marian Hossa, who will miss the season because of a skin disorder and the side effects of medication to treat it. The Blackhawks and the hockey world will miss him.
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