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The Evansville Icemen, a minor league hockey team, surprised a lot of people, including me by drawing crowds as large as 9,403 for a game last season.
When I read that they needed an average attendance of 3,000 to make money under their lease in the new Ford Center, I didn’t think they could do it, considering the Evansville Triplets, a top-level (Class AAA) minor league baseball team averaged only about half that attendance in the late 1970s and early ’80s and baseball is more popular in southwestern Indiana than hockey is.
Hockey is gaining in popularity, though. At the top level, the National Hockey League’s attendance and television ratings have gone up consistently in the last seven years. The league had a record $3.3 billion in revenue last year. And 30 million people watched the 2010 Olympic gold medal game, featuring NHL players, in which Canada nipped the United States in overtime.
The picture wasn’t always so rosy for the NHL. After it lost the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout, the league had no national TV contract for regular-season games and had trouble even getting Stanley Cup playoff games televised.
One would think the NHL would have learned from that disaster, but now it is experiencing another lockout. After the league and the players’ association failed to make any progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement last week—even with the presence of federal mediators for two days—it’s looking increasingly likely that this entire season will be lost as well.
No other North American major professional sports league has ever lost an entire season to a labor dispute, let alone two in eight years.
So if the NHL owners don’t want to play, it’s time for enterprising entrepreneurs to start another major hockey league, just as Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy did with the World Hockey Association in the 1970s.
One reason the WHA was created was to bring topnotch hockey to markets not served by the NHL. And even though the NHL now has 30 teams, there are still plenty of major cities without NHL teams.
Some people may not remember that Indianapolis had a WHA team, the Racers, for three years. In fact the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, played the first eight games of his major league hockey career (scoring three goals) for the Racers at age 18 in 1978-79.
The Racers were having financial trouble then, though, and sold Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers, whom he led to four Stanley Cup titles after they were absorbed into the NHL.
The Racers existed before the football Colts came to Indianapolis, so if pro hockey could not succeed financially in Indianapolis then it probably could not do so now, when it would have to compete with the Colts and the Indiana Pacers basketball team for fans’ dollars.
But a new WHA could put a hockey team in Louisville, Ky., which has a first-class arena in the KFC Yum Center and no professional teams (thanks to John Y. Brown’s folding the American Basketball Association’s Kentucky Colonels in 1976 instead of joining the NBA, and people such as University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino trying to keep the NBA out in recent years).
Las Vegas has a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people and no pro teams.
Metropolitan areas of more than 2 million people with no major pro hockey teams include Cleveland, Cincinnati and Seattle.
And of course there’s always room for another pro team in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
And since Evansville has proven it likes hockey and has the state-of-the-art Ford Center, complete with the luxury suites that major pro teams require today, why not give Evansville a team in the new WHA? After all its population and that of its metropolitan area are both larger than Green Bay, which has had a successful NFL team for decades.
The Ford Center’s 11,000 capacity is smaller than any NHL arena, but most teams in a new professional league aren’t going to average 10,000 in attendance for several years.
So there is the blueprint for a new hockey league. All we need now is a new Gary Davidson to step up and make it happen.
Then NHL stars can jump to the new league, just as Bobby Hull and others jumped to the old WHA.
That would serve NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the greedy NHL owners right.