When pro hockey went big business: new book charts the NHL’s coming of age

Many hockey fans still like to think of the sport as Canada’s game, but in A Whole New Game: Economics, Politics, and the Transformation of the Business of Hockey in Canada, author Neil Longley argues that has not been the case for a very long time. 

“The book is really a combination of two interests of mine.  One was hockey. Growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan in the 60s, it was hockey, hockey, hockey,” he recalled. “Professionally, I became an economist and figured out at some point that I could actually study the economics of professional sport. For me, that was a great combination.”

A Whole New Game charts a series of business decisions across a 15-year span from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which Longley says changed the game of hockey in Canada as we know it, forever. 

You could argue Canada’s grip on the game began to loosen in 1924 when the National Hockey League welcomed its first U.S. franchise, the Boston Bruins. An even bigger change was the advent of the entry draft in the late 1960s, upending the player procurement process and allowing all teams to draw from the same pool of prospects. 

CityNews’ John Ackermann sits down with author Neil Longley

It also meant a team like the Montreal Canadiens could no longer tap into local talent to build its Stanley Cup-winning rosters.

“So essentially, most of the French players stayed at home to play for the Canadiens. A few got away, but most of them did not,” Longley explained. “So, the Canadiens dynasties of the 50s, 60s, and really through the late 70s were significantly predicated on this Francophone talent.”

Once that pipeline of talent ran its course, Longley argues Montreal became just like any other NHL team. An 11-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 made that all too clear. The Canadiens not only lost the game, but their star goaltender Patrick Roy left the team as well, what Longley calls the “bottoming out” of a once-great pro-sports dynasty.

“That was truly the end of any Canadiens mystique,” he added.

The National Hockey League began its coming-of-age when it doubled in size from six to 12 teams in 1967. It would further expand to eighteen teams by 1974, a span of only seven years. 

“The business part of it became more complex and much more professionally managed in the 80s and 90s,” he said. “We saw [Commissioner] Gary Bettman bringing in some of the policies of the NBA, making the NHL a much bigger presence in the US market.”

Today, there are 32 teams in the NHL, seven of them Canadian. Longley says most decisions over the last 30 years have been guided by chasing TV ad dollars, leading the game to what have traditionally been non-hockey markets. 

Houston is among the latest cities mooted for an NHL franchise.

“Why Houston? Houston does not have a very deep hockey culture versus a Quebec City, for example, [but] Houston is a top 10 market that doesn’t have an NHL team.

“That explains a lot of the reluctance to move the Coyotes out of Phoenix,” he explained. “Phoenix has become, basically, a top 10 market and they do not want to leave that market despite everything that has gone on there since they left Winnipeg in 1996.”

2023 marks 30 years since a Canadian team last hoisted the Stanley Cup. Will it ever happen again?

“I think, just the law of probabilities, we would say yes,” Longley said. “Now, if you’re going to ask me when that’s going to happen. I don’t know.”

He says the introduction of a hard salary cap has gone a long way towards leveling the playing field.

“The large market clubs in the U.S. have more resources when it comes to a lot of things other than payroll,” he said. “But that has meant that there is more competitive balance in the last 15 to 20 years than there was prior to the ’04-’05 lockout.”

Longley, the director of business at Nevada State University near Las Vegas, says living and working in the U.S. for the past two decades has given him a greater perspective on how the game is perceived, both here and there.

“It’s really about building the entertainment in the U.S. markets, [but] in Canada, it’s way beyond entertainment,” he said.

A Whole New Game: Economics, Politics, and the Transformation of the Business of Hockey in Canada is published by Douglas & McIntyre.

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