NHL EXPANSION WAS PLANNED LONG AGO

When the NHL announced its expansion plans as soon as last season ended, almost everybody who followed the league never regarded it as a startling new announcement. NHL expansion has been rumored for several years now.

Certainly, the first tangible sign that the league was planning expansion was in 2010 when Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL teams, Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford and stated the terms of for readmission. He would not have made it if the league was not going to expand. He knew there was active sentiment for readmission, certainly in the Canadian cities.

In Quebec, 80,000 people signed a petition urging steps be taken for building an NHL arena and getting the Nordiques back. Shortly thereafter, Quebecor, a major Quebec media company which had been trying to expand its presence in the province announced it was abandoning its plans to buy the Montreal Canadiens and instead would front a group aimed at getting the Nordiques back. The issue became political and soon Bettman was seen hobnobing with the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier.

In Winnipeg, ever since the Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, any news that might portend the return of the NHL was treated like Holy Scripture. Ex-NHL players, media commentators like Don Cherry and even NHL officials including Bettman himself were constantly asked to give their blessing for the feasibility of a returned Winnipeg team under the right conditions. A pressure group, the Manitoba Mythbusters was formed to keep the flame of remembrance and hope alive.

In Hartford, the mayor unsuccessfully tried to get a new NHL arena built as part of a downtown reclamation project. Nothing concrete has yet to occur in Hartford but the door is still open to them for a return to the NHL.

Bettman’s tour produced an anguished outburst from Hamilton, still bitter about its Phoenix Coyote adventure, and demanding that it be considered for an NHL team. Then Toronto got into the act with speculators claiming that they were going to build a new 20,000 seat arena in Markham regardless if the NHL came or not.

There had been talk for over a decade that the NHL wanted to put a team into Las Vegas and now came the announcement that the city would actually build an arena to make an NHL team a possibility. Then came talk that the NHL was talking to a group from Seattle about the possibility of getting an expansion team. At one time, a Quebec City-Seattle combination seemed an ideal NHL expansion pairing.

Then there was Kansas City which built an 18,000 seat arena for no tenant at all but has hosted NHL and NBA exhibition games. Portland which has deep roots in Canadian junior hockey was said to be another ideal city just waiting for an NHL team.

And one could go back to the last NHL expansion in 1997, when Houston, a city that the NHL definitely wanted in because it was the largest American city without an NHL team and had a rivalry with Dallas that would sell tickets there, somehow managed to blow its chances despite having three separate bidders. There was also Oklahoma City, trying to prove it belonged in the big leagues with an unsuccessful NHL bid and a sports ambition that would later take the NBA Supersonics from Seattle in 2008.

So all these ambitions plus possibly others have been lying in the shadows waiting for their chance, spreading out their temptations to the NHL. The NHL has known it and so has almost everyone else who has been following the league. So the announcement that the NHL had caved in and would now expand is no surprise. Expansion was planned long ago.

But the real surprise (especially to the NHL) was that Bettman’s $500 million price tag threw cold water on so many hopes and dreams. This coming expansion (if it occurs) will be the most anti-climatic expansion in big-four North American sports league history because there has been no competition with Las Vegas and Quebec. The NHL once had all those tempting dreams listed above. Now they have to settle for what they can get.

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