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Ben Smith

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NHL follows path to ruin IHL blazed

I know who Gary Bettman’s problem is. It’s that guy in Siesta Key who’s sitting on the beach right now not missing Pavel Datsyuk.

This guy, a composite of a lot of guys, is a retired insurance adjuster from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He moved to Florida to get away from the phrase “wind-chill factor.” He also moved to Florida to get away from bleeping hockey.

Bettman and the rest of the NHL brainiacs assumed the opposite was true, which is why there are NHL franchises in Tampa and Miami now. There are also NHL franchises in Nashville, Raleigh, San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix, where no one knows the difference between a blue line and a hemline. The theory went that these were vibrant, growing markets that would come to love the NHL once you explained to everyone that the puck’s that small because it’s always been that small, so deal with it.

This was, shall we say, a rather large miscalculation.

Because now you’ve got the NHL in a bunch of places where it’s a worse fit than cows on Saturn, and a lot of them are bleeding to death. Which is why we had this suicidal lockout, the owners going on strike to demand the players save them from their own mistakes.

You know what all that reminds me of?

Same thing it reminds Michael Franke of.

He sits in his office as Komets president these days, and hears echoes of another time and another league. It was the mid-1990s, and the old IHL, of which the Komets were a long-standing member, was in the process of killing itself. Like the NHL today, it expanded into markets where it was never going to fly, and eventually it went belly up.

Bad enough that the league honchos thought minor-league hockey would be a hit in places such as Atlanta, Orlando, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, San Diego, San Antonio and San Francisco.

The “I” compounded that disaster by expanding into existing NHL markets, which torqued off the League so much that it yanked affiliations, invaded IHL markets and killed off its presumptive “rival.”

It was hubris squared, and the IHL paid with its existence.

“We warned everyone in about 1995 that disaster was right around the corner,” Franke recalled last week. “But there was so much wealth and so much ego involved in the process at that time, that everybody lost control. They lost control of their business sense and they lost control of their expenses within their teams.”

And how could they not? The rapid expansion into untenable markets sent travel costs exploding as the league, once a modest Midwestern bus loop, went coast-to-coast. And player salaries, Franke says, almost doubled between 1990 and 1997 or ’98.

Fast forward to 2012, and here’s the NHL, drowning in its own misjudgment, too.

“If you look around the NHL … the bottom line is, there’s not enough coming in to take care of what’s going out the other door,” Franke said. “That’s why they’re having the problems they’re having and that’s why the owners, in my opinion, have taken the stance of ‘Hey, if we don’t play so be it.’ ”

It’s a shortsighted and disastrous strategy, if so. But what else would you expect from Bettman and his crowd?

They still think that Canadian snowbird in Siesta Key pines for hockey, after all.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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