The final four NHL teams are set, and they are hot like burning.
Dallas (average June daytime high of 33°) beat out Seattle last night to take the last spot in the Hot Four. They join Vegas (39°), Carolina (30°) and Florida (31°) in the quest for the Cup.
Early in the first round, we joked about the best HRR outcome for the playoffs. It's not really a joke this season, however. The NHL is teetering on the edge of a whole new era of financial growth – partly fuelled by inflation – but also real growth in the game. The Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) is nearly enough to clear out the mess left behind by the pandemic.
The higher the ticket sales in the playoffs, the closer the NHL gets to basing their future salary cap on real revenue numbers. That's good for teams that want to spend every cent (and then some) the salary cap allows. That's good for the Leafs, in other words, which is the only thing that really matters around here.
So for Toronto, the best outcome (short of Toronto itself in the final) would be for teams like the Rangers, the Kings, the Avalanche, yes, Dallas and Vegas, but not Florida and Carolina to make the finals and generate big revenue numbers. Even better would be Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or, it pains me to say it, Montréal in the mix from the start.
But that's short-term thinking. That's the kind of reasoning that wants to contract the league to 12 teams in cold places where it's morally right that hockey gets played and "we" can own the game again. Just count me out of your parochial we there, everyone who shouts out that kind of thing. All this guff about "Gary" getting his all southern final, as if there's some moral wrong being done to anyone who has ever shovelled snow. Count me right out.
Long-term thinking says the NHL's plan to grow the game all over America is the right move. A small league in morally pure cold cities is a moribund league with no growth potential, most of its revenue from the slow-growing Canadian economy, and very little potential to raise the numbers of players at an elite level and keep up with the appeal of international sports powerhouses like soccer.
This older story from Forbes shows that all pro sports have grown their sponsorship (advertising via branding) revenue over the last decades.
You can't get the kind of big brand money that fuels the NFL by having most of your teams set in small Canadian cities. This is just how numbers work, it isn't about nationalism or who has a right to a hockey team – what a concept. America just has a lot more people in it. That's why the proportion of American players in the NHL is growing. They will become the majority.
In 2005-2006, as the NHL came out of the full-year lockout, the splits in nationality were 19% American, 54% Canadian with Europe supplying the rest.
In 2013-2014, it was 24% American, 52% Canadian, and the rest European.
This season, it's 29% American, 43% Canadian and the rest European. (Numbers from Elite Prospects and rounded up to no decimal places.)
The only thing that's going to stop the eventual dominance of US-born players in pro hockey is if China takes on the game in a serious way.
Television revenue and ticket sales are growing in America too. Yes, you pay a lot more for a playoff ticket in Toronto than you do in Florida. And you saw (oh, har har) empty seats in Sunrise. But the work the current Florida ownership has done to fill that poorly placed rink, to grow the game in Florida after some very poor management shows on the ice and off.
Long term, the Hot Four is the best thing that's happened to hockey since the LA Kings and the Anaheim Ducks made California a growth centre for the game. Getting the first overall pick drove season's ticket sales in Chicago – also good for the game. But going deep in the playoffs will drive sales in Florida and Carolina, and you don't need to like the Dallas Stars to be impressed by their fanbase. You have to have slept through the past few years to not understand the marketing success in Vegas.
As we watch the story unfold of the sale of the Ottawa Senators – a team in the most morally pure cold bit of Canada you can be in that's also never been a financial success – the hope has to be that stable, professional ownership will make the team worth its massive purchase price. That's not going to be easy in a market so small that also has no meaningful potential for growth.
The next expansion team won't be in Canada. It won't be in the great northeastern metro area of the USA either. Hockey is going to keep bringing the game played on ice to the hottest places in the USA. And they might start out small, but they won't be forced to stay that way like Winnipeg or Ottawa are. I for one just hope I live long enough to see the first expansion team in Mexico.
What's that hockey saying about never taking risks and always just doing things the old-fashioned way? Oh yeah: Safe is Death.
Long live hot hockey.