Before Gary Bettman and the NHL announced their $500 million price tag for admission to the league, there was a very different spirit and anticipation to the expansion process, not only for the NHL but also for future teams in the NFL, NBA and MLB.
Before that ugly, sobering price tag was announced, fans in non-NHL cities had very different dreams and hopes about the NHL.
Fans in cities like Hartford and Quebec dreamed of getting their beloved teams back and competing for the Stanley Cup once more. Fans in cities that had deep hockey roots but no NHL team like Hamilton, Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee or who wanted a second team like Toronto and Montreal now paused. Even fans in cities where hockey might be tried as a new fad and new roots might be laid like Las Vegas, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Houston, etc. shook their heads and have either withdrawn from the expansion process completely or approached it with a new sobriety.
Before Bettman’s announcement of a $500 million price tag, plus $10 million consideration fee ($8 million to be refunded if you are not good enough), there were lots of rumors, anticipation, and excitement about the NHL expanding and getting a local team to cheer for. There were stories that four cities, Quebec, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Seattle were already in the bag with more applicants to come.
In the end, according to official NHL sources, of 16 applications sent out, only two cities – Quebec and Las Vegas, the two cities who built arenas and were the most fanatical about joining the NHL – bit the bullet and were prepared to pay this grotesque fee. No one else rushed out to place an entry fee and the only announcements made were from rich people condemning the price or stating they will NOT bid. Now the NHL, instead of picking from a bundle of wooers has to settle for what they can get. In 1997, eleven bidders, including three from Houston tried to get teams; in 2016, Bettman’s excessive price has reduced it to two. So much for the “separating the men from the boys” policy.
The ugly, naked greed of the whole process has to sober even the most die-hard Nordiques fan or Las Vegas hockey enthusiast. When Bettman made his tour of the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford in 2010, and stated the conditions for readmission, fan-base, arena, and ownership, it all seemed very reasonable. It was understood that all three conditions had to be met in order for a franchise to survive and prosper.
But this $500 million “entry fee” on top of everything else makes every fan see things from a different perspective. It tells ordinary fans that this is a rich person’s game, that few of them will ever be able to afford tickets, or even to buy sports merchandise with the new team’s logo.
Nobody anticipated this spirit before the entry fee announcement. Ever since Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford lost their NHL teams, ever since cities like Hamilton, Houston, and Oklahoma City failed in their attempt to get an NHL team during the last expansion, ever since fans in cities with hockey roots like Portland, Saskatoon, and Milwaukee dared to dream about getting a local team, there has been a hungry, keen spirit to bring major professional hockey to hockey-starved markets. Why did the NHL have to throw cold water on it?
There still will be some anticipation and excitement but it will not be the same. There is just too much ugly reality to forget it. Expansion should have been a glorious, sun-filled, exciting, joyous event. Instead it has become a dark, greedy, grim, grimy, tiresome process led by Scrooges before that fateful Christmas Eve with nothing else but money on their minds.