In fact, at $50 million, the chances of a franchise being a business success are ridiculously low. So are the chances of those teams being interesting to watch. Under terms of their deal with the league to abandon the North Stars in favor of the Sharks, the Gunds won the right—their final pillage of hockey in the Twin Cities—to take several of Minnesota's best prospects with them to San Jose. So the Sharks have a slight head start. But as part of the Gunds' bargain with the NHL, San Jose also had to share the picks in last May's expansion draft with Minnesota. With the league's remaining 20 teams permitted to protect 16 skaters and two goalies (each could lose only one player), the likelihood that San Jose would land useful players was slim. The Sharks had the usual options: lugs and thugs.
The protection lists when Tampa and Ottawa choose their teams next spring will consist of only 14 skaters and two goalies, but because the expansion pool will have had only one year to regenerate, the pickings will probably be even worse than they were for San Jose.
Given the NHL's niggardly approach to expansion drafts, the best way for new teams to build a foundation for success is through the amateur draft—but that requires considerable luck. That's because rule changes in 1979 and '80 lowered the minimum age for eligibility for the amateur draft from 20 to 18. Since scouts have more difficulty discerning greatness in an 18-year-old prospect than in a more developed 20-year-old, drafting mistakes have become more common.
What about free agency as a quick fix? Forget it. There was virtually no free-agent movement in the NHL in the '70s and '80s, but now, at least, there is a trickle. Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA's tough new director (he replaced the ever-compliant Alan Eagleson last year), may be able to negotiate greater leverage in the collective-bargaining agreement for teams and players trying to better themselves.
The lessons of the 1970s indicate that Tampa and San Jose will have to show fast upward mobility. Ottawa, a Canadian city, should be well-supported, but hockey has so few players who are name-recognizable in Tampa and San Jose that visiting attractions can't be counted on to put people in seats. Bobby Orr's three visits a season didn't save the Oakland Seals from their inept management. Neither will one or two appearances a year by Wayne Gretzky or Brett Hull sustain the Tampa Bay Lightning if it doesn't quickly become a winner.
The NHL already has a map of the road to ruin. All it has to do is read it. It's not too late for Ziegler to show some leadership and talk his owners into reworking the expansion plan.
The franchise fee should be cut, first to bring relief to Tampa and Ottawa and second to encourage sound businessmen to apply for future franchises with their own money, not somebody else's. The pace of expansion should be slowed to accommodate no more than one franchise every two or even three years so that the talent pool would have time to replenish itself. Expansion drafts that allow for the protection of only 10 players and one goalie would give fledgling franchises a core of solid players while they wait for draft choices to develop.
The NHL can still reach its goal of 28 teams, but first it must answer this question: Do the owners want a quick buck, or do they want a healthy, truly national sport in the U.S.? It's time they started giving a different answer than they have in the past.