Small-market teams have work to do

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Among the reasons for the National Hockey League's decision to lock out the players was a desire to perpetuate hockey in some of its less traditional markets.

Now, with cost certainty in place and a revamped game being offered to the public, those markets will have to try to win back their fans who, for the most part, exhibited a profound disinterest to the game's absence.

There is no specific formula. In each instance, the team will face issues that may or may not be relevant in other markets.

In Columbus, the game should do well. Crowds were solid before the lockout, and in that part of Ohio, hockey was the fastest-rising participatory sport.

Since then, the league took a year off, but in that time, Rick Nash, who justifiably is adored in Columbus, has become even better. And this is a kid who tied for the league lead in goal scoring in 2003-04.

The Blue Jackets have a solid marketing organization and a fan base that likely is to forgive and forget. Not only will the team survive, it is poised to become one of the league's more successful franchises, following the models of Colorado and Dallas.

But in Phoenix, the quest for acceptance will be a much more difficult road. Sources say that part-owner Wayne Gretzky is under tremendous pressure from the majority owner to increase his profile. He won't play again, so he'll have to coach.

But all of Gretzky's friends -- which includes pretty well everyone in hockey -- think he would be making a mistake. Gretzky's nature is such that he would sacrifice his stature if he felt that to do so would benefit his team.

But even with Rick Tocchet assuming the lion's share of the load, which the Phoenix players feel will be the scenario, the Coyotes' coaching job is fraught with danger.

The team is not good enough to be successful, and if Gretzky were to coach, he could only tarnish his image -- which is the Coyotes' main selling point. Despite the new arena, this is a franchise that will have a tough sell.

Led by Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, the Atlanta Thrashers have one of most explosive teams in hockey.

They're well coached by Bob Hartley and figure to make huge strides this year.

It has been proven that in any market, NHL fans will come out to see a winning team, and because the Thrashers should start to move up in the standings, the franchise will be able to keep its head above water.

Nashville is a toss-up. The team has not yet announced whether it will reduce ticket prices, even though media critics have suggested that any other course of action would border on insanity. The team did keep a number of season-ticket holders during the course of the lockout by paying a 3% interest on their deposits.

PREDATORS PREDICTABLE

But one of the Predators' problems is that they reflect the monochromatic nature of their general manager, David Poile. If they somehow can find a way to be entertaining, they might survive, but their owner, Craig Leipold, is not exactly the most popular person in Tennessee, and the team has a long way to go on the public-relations front.

The Carolina Hurricanes did a lot of work during the down-season to keep their corporate supporters in place. Cost certainty or not, Raleigh-Durham is a difficult place to establish hockey interest and nothing in the new CBA changes that.

Yet there is new hope in Florida where Mike Keenan now is general manager and Jacques Martin is coach.

There are enough Canadians down there to keep the team alive if it manages to be even close to entertaining. And if owner Alan Cohen gives Keenan enough budget leeway to fulfill his plans, the Panthers will do more than entertain. They will win.


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