The National Hockey League holds a strange place in the American sports landscape. It’s not as popular as it once was, but it’s more popular than ever. It’s not on the national forefront like the NFL, NBA, or even MLB, yet it’s still considered one of the “big four” sports.
Over the last few years, the NHL has made a point of trying to expand, both by adding new franchises and emphasizing scoring to draw in a new fan base. Yet the casual sports fan can be forgiven for thinking the league is falling apart, after the John Scott All-Star game debacle, and the decreased interest in the Winter Classic game, and the bizarre sale of the New York Islanders that netted former owner Charles Wang way more money than the franchise was worth. There’s no doubt the NHL is in a tenuous position, especially when you start to think about some of their dirty secrets.
Everyone has skeletons in their closets, dirty little secrets they don’t want anyone to know about. The NHL is no exception, in fact, they’ve done a pretty good job of holding their cards to their chest. No, not every one of their secrets is potentially earth shattering stuff, like the fact that pucks used to be made out of frozen horse crap. But other secret problems, like the fact that a majority of teams are actually losing money or that southern expansion has been a complete disaster could prove to be long-term hazards for the international sports league.
Have we got your attention yet? Then why not keep reading for our list of the Top 15 Dirty Secrets the NHL Doesn’t Want You to Know.
15. The NHL Started over a Petty Feud
Before the NHL, there was the NHA – the National Hockey Association. Founded in 1909, the league eventually grew to 11 teams throughout Canada, swallowing teams from two competing hockey leagues.
What kicked off the fall of the NHA was the beginning of World War I in 1914. Most of the league was either drafted or freely signed up to fight in Europe, and as a result, only five times ended up playing during most of the war.
But what really sank the NHA was a petty dispute between the NHA and one of their owners, Eddie Livingstone of the Toronto Shamrocks. Nobody in the NHA liked Livingstone due to his demeanor. He once asked the league to halt play while his two star players, brothers, took after their ill father. When WWI broke out and the talent pool evaporated, he purchased another NHA team, the Toronto Blueshirts. There were so few players though, he folded the Shamrocks and sent those players to play for the Blueshirts.
The league suspended play for the Blueshirts in 1917, vaguely stating that the team had broken rules, and sent Blueshirt players to play for other teams. Livingstone eventually sued the NHA, which resulted in the league breaking up, and it’s owner founding the NHL without Livingstone.
14. Tanking in the NHL is Worse Than NBA
You might think the title of this entry is just hyperbole. No league can have a bigger problem of tanking than one that hosts the Philadelphia 76ers. And you would have been right, up until 2014 that is.
Long story short, in 2014, the NHL announced they were overhauling the way they do the draft. Starting in 2015, the odds of winning the #1 overall pick were now mostly evenly balanced among the lottery teams. In 2016, the lottery will be used to select the top three teams. The Hockey News wrote an article saying the rule would encourage tanking from here on out and they were exactly right.
Over the course of the 2015 season, no less than six teams intentionally threw away their season in the hopes of gaining the top pick. The Sabres, Coyotes, Maples Leafs, Blue Jackets, Jets, and Oilers all gave up either before the season even began or late when they realized they had a shot at getting the pick. When Sabres fans started cheering their own team giving up a goal late in the season, it was obvious something wasn’t right.
13. John Scott and the All-Star Game
Everyone’s heard of the John Scott situation by now. Due to fan voting, he earned his way into the All-Star game despite barely seeing any action and not exactly being all that great. The NHL did everything they could, including a sneaky attempt at threatening Scott’s family, to keep him out. Why the NHL was so dead set against him playing remains a mystery.
Not long after being voted into the game, the Coyotes traded Scott to the Canadiens, who quickly demoted him to the minor leagues. Minor league players aren’t eligible for the All-Star game and Scott was now in a different division on top of that. There’s been rampant speculation that this was the NHL’s way of trying to keep Scott out of the game.
After years of seeing the ratings drop for the All-Star game, the NHL decided to mix it up that year by introducing a 3-on-3 format for the game. It’s believed that they wanted top level talent to play in the game and didn’t want Scott there ruining the new format by essentially making it a game of 3-on-2 given his skill set.
It didn’t work, however, and not only did Scott play in the All-Star game, he won MVP.
12. Their Constitution Used to be Top Secret
As mentioned before, the NHL really doesn’t want you to know much about the history of their game. The NHL has kept its constitution completely secret from public eyes for years. It’s more than just a set of rules, it details everything there is to know about how the NHL operates and its line of thinking. It’s a closely guarded secret by the NHL for a multitude of reasons.
That all changed in 2009 during court hearings involving the Arizona Coyotes. The bankrupt Coyotes were desperate to move to Hamilton, but the NHL was stopping them. Eventually, the two went to court, where the Coyotes filed a copy of the constitution as evidence. The files have since become public, free for anyone to see.
One of the reasons the constitution was kept hidden was because of silly rules like one found in article 4:3 reading “No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member, without the written consent of such member.” Another, more important reason the NHL kept its constitution hidden was because of several bylaws that would leave the league open to anti-trust lawsuits because so many clauses contradict and invalidate each other.
11. Steroid Use is a Bigger Problem than Anyone Admits
You might be of the opinion that steroid use in professional sports is okay. Fine! Whatever you think, awesome. But the people in charge of those pro sports have a slightly different perception of performance enhancers.
Currently, the NHL only has one test for steroids. It’s weak and ineffective according to many players. The former chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dick Pound, proclaimed in 2005 that an estimated one out of every three players in the NHL was taking some form of performance enhancer.
That number might be a little high, but several former players, including Justin Bourne and Georges Laraque have admitted to seeing steroid use first hand and speak of knowing several players who used. They both also suggest that, at least amongst players and coaches, that steroid use is not only common, it’s widely well-known or suspected in many cases.
In response to Pound’s comments, Commissioner Gary Bettman claimed “We don’t have the problem in hockey,” showing either his ignorance or unwillingness to talk about it publicly. Either way, there’s a very real possibility that steroid use in hockey will be forced into the limelight like it once was in baseball.
10. The KHL is a Real Threat
In 2015, the Kontiental Hockey League reminded everyone how powerful they’ve become by announced they were expanding into China and South Korea. At only eight years old, the Russian KHL has already become the second largest hockey league in the world, operating 30 teams in nine countries, including China and South Korea.
What’s worse, the league has convinced the International Ice Hockey Federation that the NHL is bad for the sport, stealing all the European talent and bringing it to North America. They’ve convinced the IIHF that they’re the best option for keeping local talent.
There’s even talk about expansion into North America, with the KHL taking advantage of the multiple labor disputes between the NHL and the Player’s Association, the distrust and dislike of Gary Bettman, and the promise of more money in a league that’s likely to earn more than the NHL in the next decade.
In an effort to compete, there’s been talk within the NHL hierarchy to expand into Europe. However, this move would be incredibly costly, wouldn’t make sense for west coast teams, and the IIHF have already vowed they wouldn’t let this happen.
9. Southern Expansion is a Complete Failure
Since Bettman became commissioner in 1993, seven teams either relocated or were rewarded to southern states.
The Panthers, with the exception of their second season, have been mediocre at best since their inception. They’ve lost so much money in fact, that they’ve been fighting for years to build and operate a casino next to their arena. The Coyotes, as previously mentioned, where in such a state of disaster they ended up bankrupt and sued the NHL.
The Hurricanes consistently have the lowest attendance ratings in the NHL, and the lowest in the league during the 2015-2016 season according to ESPN. The Predators have struggled earning money, and have been rumored to move to Hamilton, Calgary, or Kansas City since the team was sold to Del Biaggio in 2008. The Thrashers ended up moving to Winnipeg after losing too much money in Atlanta due to poor attendance.
The Lightning have made a profit only twice in their 23 year history. The Dallas Stars filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and after going up for sale later that year, only one person bid on the team.
8. Concussions and CTE are just as Big a Problem in Hockey
No one in the sports world wants to talk about concussions or CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but it’s a major issue that needs examine. While everyone’s busy talking about the NFL in regards to concussions, the NHL is hoping to push its problems regarding the issue under the rug.
Hockey is a violent, brutal sport with men in big shoulder pads ramming into each other at fast speeds. It’s also the only sport on earth that can randomly turn into a boxing match, which certainly doesn’t help.
Gary Bettman says: “From a medical and science standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one [concussions] necessarily leads to the other [CTE],” something that is demonstrably untrue. A lawsuit was filed against the NHL by Steve Montador’s family after he died in 2015 at the age of 35. He had sustained multiple concussions while playing in the NHL, and suffered depression after he retired.
7. Alec Connell Was Almost Killed by a Mobster… Who Was Also an Owner
Bill Dwyer got his fortune during the Prohibition Era, selling bootleg alcohol and forming his own gang. Despite being arrested in 1925 for his mob connections, that didn’t stop the NHL from letting him buy the Hamilton Tigers that same year, whom Dwyer moved to New York and renamed the Americans.
Sure enough, Dwyer bet and fixed games throughout his ownership, but the worst of it came during the 1931-32 season. Dwyer paid off a goal judge to insure the Americans would win a match against the Detroit Falcons. The Anericans hit the post, but the goal judge said it went in since he was being paid by Dwyer. Connell (the goaltender for the Falcons) didn’t like this, and in his own words, he “punched him right on the nose and the blood started to run.”
Right away, Dwyer and his mobsters wanted Connell’s head. The police were called to give Connell an escort home after the game, as Dwyer sent his gang to kill the eventual Hall of Famer. On his way home, someone bumped into him and asked if he were Connell. With a hood draped over his head, Connell said he was a simple shoe salesman and hurried on.
6. The League is Still under Threat from Mobsters
While Bill Dwyer might have lost the Americans in 1937, that didn’t stop mobsters from taking an active interest in the NHL. We think of mobsters talking to athletes telling them to take a fall as a Hollywood cliché, but the truth is that cliché is pretty close to reality.
Oleg Tverdovsky’s parents were kidnapped in 1996 and the kidnappers demanded $200,000 from Tverdovsky or they’d kill his family. Alexei Zhitnik was assaulted by Russian mobsters in 1993 who demanded “protection” money from him. Alexander Mogilny received a threat in the mail, asking for half a million or else. A report by PBS alleges that several Russian born players actually have ties to the mobs.
This isn’t an issue that’s gone away either. In 2009, the Canadiens were under investigation by the NHL regarding Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn ties to the Russian mob. Just last year, Zack Kassian of the same team was in a car accident while driving a car sold to him by a mob boss’s son.
5. The NHL is Still Corrupt Too
In 2010, emails between Colin Campbell, Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, and several NHL officials were leaked online. The emails detailed a litany of personal biases and corrupt actions taken by Campbell. For starters, his emails used profane language to describe refs who issued fouls against his son, current Blue Jackets center Gregory Campbell.
The emails also revealed a longstanding grudge against center Mark Savard, who used to play with Gregory. Many speculate that this grudge is what got Matt Cooke off the hook when he blindsided Savard in 2010.
Campbell was also accused of firing a pro-union official, Dean Warren. Warren advocated heavily among other officials to unionize, and when Campbell and the NHL found out, Campbell told officiating director Stephen Walkom that “Warren has to go,” and began looking for any excuse to fire him.
Earlier this week, Campbell went before a judge involving a case of 100 former NHL players suing the league over concussions (see entry #8). The judge ordered that more of his emails be released. These new emails show Campbell comparing rules changes designed to keep players safe to airbags in cars killing infants, asked one player why he didn’t kill another, and described Aaron Ward of the Rangers as a “punk that deserved the whack.”
4. Fox Sports Forced the NHL to Expand
In 2012, Jonathan Gatehouse published a novel titled The Investigator, an extensive investigation into Gary Bettman’s time as commissioner. In it, he spoke to Brian Burke, who worked in the league office, who told Gatehouse that Fox Sports pressured the NHL in the 90s to expand to 30 markets. Fox Sports carried hockey at the time and wanted the game to be in as many markets as possible.
According to Gatehouse’s research, Fox put major pressure on the NHL to move the Quebec Nordiques to Denver and the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix. Burke also recalls a time when a Fox Sports executive told him “you need a team in Atlanta,” which did happen in 1997. Gatehouse also speculates that the research done by the NHL into the viability of having teams in those cities was a rush job.
Burke goes on to say that he believed Bettman was putting the interest of the league ahead of what TV execs wanted, but that’s hard to believe after how badly his southern strategy has panned out so far.
3. Painkiller Addiction is Rampant
We have a morbid obsession when it comes to whether or not athletes are taking steroids, as mentioned previously. But for some reason, when it comes to painkillers, we look away and ignore it. Every athlete takes them to some degree since pain is such a big part of sports, especially violent ones like hockey.
In 2011, former player Ian Laperrière told Sports Illustrated just how big a problem painkiller use in the NHL has become. He spoke of players taking them at night when they go to the club, and mixing them with alcohol, players using cheap black market pills, and getting high with drug dealers.
Justin Bourne also wrote about the painkiller problem. He goes into detail about how players are given 30 tablets at a time, how guys take them constantly when injured, how some players have died because of too much use, and knowing so many guys who have become addicted to them.
Obviously the NHL doesn’t want you to know most of their players are hopped up on drugs. They’re happy to leave it in the dark, overshadowed by talk of concussions and steroids.
2. Racism is Still a Problem
No one wants to hear about racism in sports, but it’s a fact of life. The NHL is no different, in fact, it’s one of the worst offenders. Primarily being a Canadian, and overall northern sport, it’s not hard to understand why a majority of players are whiter than Phil Mickelson eating marshmallows on a snowy day.
Several players of color have stepped forward in recent years, detailing stories of abuse based on racial grounds.
In 2011, a banana was thrown at Wayne Simmonds before a game. Joel Ward received racist remarks on Twitter after his Capitals beat the Bruins in a 2012 playoff game. Last year, Capitals Fans accused Islander fans of yelling racist chants at them. Evander Kane has come out in 2012 and said people in Winnipeg had a problem with him simply because he’s black.
None of these things seem like big deals, and any of these events can (and do) happen in other sports. But in a league that’s so thoroughly dominated by one race, everything like this should be magnified, especially when there seems to be a race related incident at least once a season.
1. The Majority of Teams are Losing Money
A lot of this article has been leading up to this entry. The fact of the matter is, the NHL’s southern expansion and failure to compete with the KHL has meant that over two-thirds of teams in the league are losing way more money than they’re earning.
In 2012, Forbes reported that 18 teams are losing money and plenty more only barely broke even. The only thing keeping the league afloat were the top three earning teams and the revenue sharing scheme.
While those numbers have changed somewhat now, helped immensely by the Thrashers moving to Canada, the difference isn’t much. Several teams including the Panthers, Lightning, Coyotes, Blues, and Avalanches have all been losing money fairly consistently. Even the Chicago Blackhawks weren’t turning a profit until recently. In 2014, Forbes reported that the six highest grossing teams accounted for a whopping 76% of the league’s operating income.
When you look at it that way, it’s not hard to see why the players have been locked out three times since 1994 and went on strike in 1992.
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