Some hockey fans weary of the constant NHL labor strife would like to see another pro league in North America. Here’s why that won’t happen.
The notion was tried once before, back in the 1970s, with the World Hockey Association. It lasted only seven seasons before folding, with its remaining teams (Quebec City, Edmonton, Hartford and Winnipeg) merging with the NHL in 1979.
In the 33 years since the WHA played its final game, there’s been no serious effort to resurrect it. An attempt to bring it back during the 2004-05 NHL lockout came to nothing.
There’s also been no attempts to start up a different pro league to rival the NHL, or at least provide an alternative for hockey fans who’ve become disenchanted with the latter’s constant labor strife. That’s because the NHL dominates the market in North America.
One reason why is there’s very few markets now in which to put professional hockey franchises.
When the WHA started up in the 1970s, there were only sixteen NHL franchises, so there were more markets for a rival pro league to have a decent shot. That’s not the case today, where only a small handful of potential markets remain.
Quebec City wants an NHL franchise and has no interest in something from a lesser league. It remains to be seen if there’s a potential owner interested in putting a pro hockey franchise in Seattle. Kansas City has an arena, but there’s been no person or group keen to put a pro hockey franchise there. A franchise from a lesser pro hockey league in Las Vegas would be little more than a curiosity.
Hartford is a former NHL market, but while there’s been occasional talk of bringing the NHL back, there doesn’t appear any serious push afoot for it, and it’s doubtful there would be much interest in a rival pro league.
Cleveland briefly had an NHL franchise in the 1970s, but there’s been no desire in putting a pro hockey team back there since. Houston came close to landing the Edmonton Oilers back in the late-1990s, but interest in major pro hockey from that city since then appears to have died out.
A rival league could try to put teams in a couple of Southern Ontario markets, like Hamilton or Kitchener-Waterloo, but they’d fight a losing battle in the heart of Maple Leafs nation. Halifax is currently a QMJHL town, and isn’t large enough to support a pro franchise.
Saskatoon is often mentioned as a terrific hockey hotbed, but a franchise from a rival pro league would have to compete with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, as well as the loyalties toward the NHL’s Western Canadian franchises.
Forget about trying to put new teams in the same markets where NHL clubs rule. The WHA tried that, and every one of those teams eventually folded, unable to compete with their NHL rivals. Any rival league attempting to compete in NHL cities would suffer the same fate.
Besides, it’s not as though NHL teams would be willing to share their facilities with those of a rival league. That would force those rivals into either constructing their own, or playing in smaller, inferior arenas.
Starting up a new pro hockey league requires millions of dollars and a number of business interests willing to invest in it. Since the end of the WHA, it’s clear the desire to invest in such a league is non-existent.
It’s been suggested moderate and small market NHL owners, frustrated over how the league is conducting its labor business, should break away and form their own league. Good luck with that. Legally, they couldn’t do that even if they wanted to, which – trust me – they don’t. Even if a number of NHL owners were unhappy with Commissioner Gary Bettman and his cabal of hawkish owners driving this current lockout, none of them are keen to uncouple themselves from the NHL brand and start up a rebel league.
What made the WHA viable back in its heyday was its teams signed away NHL talent to expensive contracts worth considerably more than what those player were earning in the NHL. That resulted in an explosion of salaries for players, as NHL teams had to out-bid these WHA upstarts to retain their best players.
That’s not the case now. The NHL pays its players so well, a North American rival league couldn’t possibly compete. Such a league would be reduced to raiding the rosters of minor pro leagues, and even if they could successfully fill their lineups with minor leaguers, the quality of talent would be inferior to that of the NHL.
Fans looking for an alternative to the NHL will have to cast their eyes overseas and the Kontinental Hockey League. Dreams of a North American pro league rivalling the NHL died with the WHA in 1979, and won’t be resurrected.