On Wednesday, Las Vegas’ new and still-unnamed NHL franchise hired their first general manager in George McPhee.
It’s another important step towards the team’s inaugural game in October 2017 and if you think about it, it’s yet another step forward for NHL hockey in non-traditional markets.
While the NHL first breached non-traditional terrain by placing two teams in California back in 1967, it wasn’t until almost decades later that the game took off. Sparked by Gretzky and a second generation of hockey-viewing fans in Los Angeles, the NHL’s Hollywood outpost eventually helped spawn a sequel in Anaheim, then a Northern California club, and eventually teams in places like Dallas, Denver and Phoenix sprang up.
But the growth has been even more explosive in the last five years.
The high cost of hockey hasn’t stopped families in Sunbelt markets from enrolling their young players in youth programs in large numbers. Arizona State University now boasts a Division I NCAA program, while the American Hockey League’s move to markets like San Diego and Ontario has helped increase the league’s attendance while helping ease logistical burdens on Pacific Division clubs.
The evidence is clear and decisive — hockey in US non-traditional markets is enjoying unprecedented success and that success has strengthened the National Hockey League as a whole.
But despite all of this, there are some who refuse to believe it.
Enter Dean Blundell of Sportsnet in Canada. On his show “Blundell & Co.” on Tuesday, he went on a scathing attack of the Arizona Coyotes and Shane Doan, who had just inked a one-year deal with the only franchise he’s ever played for. In the tirade, he said Doan “loves losing” and that he’s “a guy that looks forward to sucking every season.”
Despite the organization being just four years removed from playing in the Western Conference Final and currently having one of the top prospect pools in the league, Blundell automatically linked Arizona to failure and losing, and had no problem attacking Doan, who is beloved in Arizona for his commitment to the organization and his selfless nature off the ice, to try to make his point.
“I get asked often about the loyalty I feel towards the organization. I get asked why I’ve turned down other opportunities so that I can keep playing hockey in what some people characterize as not an ideal situation. I’ve already given plenty of examples of why I love it here, but on a basic level, my biggest reason for wanting to stick around all these years is simple: This organization drafted me to win a Stanley Cup, and I still plan to deliver on my end of the bargain.”- Shane Doan in The Players Tribune, December 2015.
This type of criticism just isn’t limited to Arizona. Las Vegas hasn’t even played a game yet and they’re already under scrutiny from those in more traditional markets.
Last year, CBC News traveled to Vegas to question the locals about hockey and likely show viewers back in Canada that interest in the NHL there would be tepid at best.
And of course, the Florida Panthers have been the subject of relocation rumors a lot in recent times because of their geographical location, but relocation is a highly unlikely option for the franchise because the structure of their lease keeps them tied to South Florida for the foreseeable future.
But while all the white noise from traditional markets kicks up a fuss, the non-traditional markets quietly continue on; growing their fan bases and the number of people playing the game.
In the Phoenix area, the game took another big leap forward just recently when local product Auston Matthews went first overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs at this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
And if you think the moment was lost on people from the Valley of the Sun, think again. On the front of The Arizona Republic the following morning was a large picture of the young star with a headline that said: “From Cactuses to Maple Leafs.” It was a touchstone moment for Sunbelt hockey and something the NHL is only going to see more of going forward.
If one pundit was so willing to attack Doan, how will they handle Matthews? Will the formation of his game be criticized because it took place in the desert? If he goes into a slump, will the writers scrutinize his decision to not develop himself in the CHL?
In a way, fans in non-traditional markets are immune to the criticism. They’ve heard it in just about every way, shape and form, and at the end of the day they have one thing on their side — the facts.
And the facts are showing that the best is yet to come in these sun-soaked cities.