Two of the main questions that are being asked about the upcoming NHL expansion (If it occurs and there are at least 500 million reasons per candidate why it will) are which cities will get the teams and by how many teams will the NHL expand. A third closely related question is will expansion change the NHL’s structure. All three questions can be answered with some predictable success.
First, in answer to question three, the NHL will use expansion to revise its current awkward playoff format in favor of a simplified NFL structure of two conferences with four divisions of four teams. This new structure (which will probably be adopted by the NBA and MLB as well once they get the scent of expansion money too) will allow every professional sports league to comfortably expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 and even to 48 teams without any problems. It has to be remembered that currently there are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada and that the current size of every major professional sports league is only a fraction of what they could be in the future.
Revision of the NHL’s structure will answer question number two. It is true that the NHL would like balanced conferences but since it will be easy in the future to expand within this new format, there is no need to balance up the conferences right now. Why settle for 1 billion dollars when you can get 2 billion right now with more awaiting you down the road? So the current expansion will be for four teams with more expansion to come once the new teams are absorbed and consolidated.
There is a second reason why the NHL will expand by four teams and why part of the answer to question one will be Quebec City: Bettman and the NHL have made a commitment to them.
It is to be remembered that in 2010, Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities he took NHL franchises from in the 1990s and gave them the terms for readmission to the NHL. There was a favorable reaction in all three of those cities, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford.
Bettman and the NHL had three conditions for readmission. First was an adequate and enthusiastic fan base which all three had when they were members of the NHL. No problem there. The other two conditions were the reasons why these cities lost their teams: lack of good ownership and an NHL-size arena.
Winnipeg was the first off the mark, building a new arena and recruiting the richest man in Canada, Dave Thomson, to be its owner and was rewarded with the chance to buy an existing team, when the Atlanta Thrashers crashed. And now Quebec has followed suit by building an NHL arena with billionaire media giant Quebecor to be its owner.
If the NHL can swallow Winnipeg with its tiny 15,000 seat arena and the smallest market in the league (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Northern Ontario), they can certainly accept Quebec with an 18,000 seat arena and a much better market that comprises all of Eastern Quebec province and all the Maritime provinces. Bettman kept his word to Winnipeg and there is no reason to doubt that he will not keep his word to Quebec.
Why should fans trust Bettman in this matter? Because you do not tell governments and their taxpayers to spend $400 million on an arena and then cheat them when they comply. It is not good business and if Bettman and the NHL want to attract the best investors to be future owners of NHL teams, the league cannot afford to get a reputation for doing bad business. Quebec will get its Nordiques back. It would be very shocking if they do not.
So in answer to question one, Quebec City and Las Vegas have almost a lock on two of the new four expansion franchises. They are their franchises to lose. The only unanswered part is who will join them.