Last season there were seven eastern conference teams between 86 and 94 points. As I write this there are seven eastern conference teams within one game of .500 hockey and another nine in the western conference. That is the kind of parity the NHL seems to have been striving for with the new CBA, salary cap and all. But is it good for hockey? Is it good for promoting the sport?
Of the major North American team sports the NFL is probably tops followed by MLB, the NBA and finally hockey. The NFL is kind of a unique entity in that they only play 16 games and that it is gains a lot of popularity because of sports betting (even just casual betting between friends) but parity is anything but real in the NFL. Over the past 4 1/2 seasons the New England Patriots (past 4 plus the current one) the New England Patriots are 59-14 and the Indianapolis Colts are 57-15. Those two teams have won 3 of the last 4 Superbowls and have been the dominant teams in the league. The New England-Indianapolis game a couple weeks ago generated huge media attention and fan interest and football fans of all kinds tuned in to watch. I even found myself, who rarely watches football, tuning in to see what the excitement was all about.
Then there is MLB where it is thoroughly dominated by the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. These two teams and its rivalry have dominated the MLB landscape for years and people get excited about Red Sox-Yankees games and playoff series. Fans of other teams can use playing against these two teams as a measuring stick of how good their team is. Itâ€™s a challenge to compete with these two but when teams do people get excited. People enjoy the David vs Goliath stories. Now one could argue that the Yankees-Red Sox dominance is a bit too lop-sided in baseball but it is hard to argue that that rivalry and having those two teams being a standard in baseball is not good for baseball. The love-em or hate-em attitude that fans have towards the Yankees and Red Sox keeps fan interest alive.
Once upon a time the NBA was the fastest growing sport and in the mid-1990â€™s may have even been the top team sport in North America. The reason was not parity but because of the Chicago Bulls dominance. Michael Jordan was the biggest sports star on the planet and the Bulls won six of 8 championships between 1991 and 1998. As the Chicago Bulls dominance faded, the LA Lakers dominance rose and they won three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. While the NBA is still a popular entity it has lost some lustre over the past several seasons and I believe a part of that is because there is no one dominant team or player.
And that brings us to the NHL. Most hockey fans, even the casual ones, remember the Colorado-Detroit rivalry of the 1990â€™s and into the early 2000â€™s. When those two teams played fans watched. Those games were intense even if they were played in November and only meant 2 points in the standings and those teams were all but a certainty to make the playoffs regardless of who got the 2 points. They were intense. They were hard hitting. In the standings they didnâ€™t mean much, but for the pride of each franchise they meant a lot. They were measuring stick games. When teams played the Wings and Avalanche those games were viewed as measuring stick games. They were games to watch. Not surprisingly, those years were the years when the NHL had their best U.S. national TV contract and probably the most consistent fan interest and media coverage.
The NHL now has parity. The 2006 NHL Stanley Cup champion missed the playoffs in 2007 as did the NHL runner up. The 2007 Stanley Cup champion is currently floundering two games under .500. The big media markets of Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles all saw their teams miss the playoffs last year and despite having a real good team, fan interest in Detroit has waned probably in part due to the fact they really donâ€™t have a big time rival anymore with Colorado missing the playoffs last year and long time rivals Chicago and St. Louis sucking big time the past few (or more in Chicagoâ€™s case) years.
The NHL has tried to create rivalries since the lockout by having each team play their division rival 8 times which seemed to have back fired and resulted in over-saturation. It is difficult to generate a rivalry from 8 relatively non-important games between average teams. Rivalries are created between good teams or through playoff battles but while the NHL promoted divisional games in the regular season they missed the boat by promoting a conference style playoff system. There was a time when teams frequently played the same teams in the playoffs over a number of years but that is not the case anymore. Ottawa-Toronto faced each other in 4 of 5 seasons and Edmonton-Dallas faced each other something like 5 consecutive times. Those Edmonton-Dallas series made Edmonton-Dallas regular season games seem just a little bit more interesting than they probably would have otherwise. That doesnâ€™t happen much anymore. Last year featured only two playoff series which also occurred during the 2006 playoffs. Those series were San Jose-Nashville and Ottawa-Buffalo. The San Jose-Nashville series were generally uninteresting and fairly easy San Jose wins so they probably didnâ€™t generate much of a rivalry but now that parity has hit and Nashville is no longer a good team, and rivalry would have lost its lustre anyway. The Ottawa-Buffalo series did create a bit of a heated rivalry that did generate some regular season game interest but once again the NHLâ€™s parity plan hit the Sabres in the face and now they currently sit out of a playoff spot and no longer do the Sens-Sabres games feature two dominant offensive powerhouse teams.
Who knows, maybe a couple of dominant teams will rise up and some key rivalries will create some league-wide excitement like the Wing-Avalanche did in the late 1990â€™s but in the new salary cap era I have my doubts and that is going to keep fan interest low. Fans just do not get excited about mediocrity.