This drawn out NHL expansion period has been probably the most confused and disappointing of any “big 4″ North American sport expansions, that started out with 4 “done deals” being reported; to being reduced to only two fanatical cities that are all the NHL can get after it stated its greedy terms; to having the other two “done deals” not have proper NHL rinks under construction and even one city not even sure about which league it wants to join; to have the expansion reduced to only one team because of a currency crisis in one country; to maybe the NHL having to reduce its excessive demands because the North American business world has made it clear it will not accept them; to maybe having no expansion at all; and in the end leaving the NHL with two unbalanced conferences whether they expand or not.
All that is left on the NHL’s expansion table is Quebec City and Las Vegas, the two most fanatical cities who were willing to pay a $500 million expansion fee, plus a $10 million “consideration fee” ($8 million refundable if the offer was not suitable). The other two “done deals” Seattle and Toronto have been glad to drop out using the NHL’s excessive terms as an excuse to not being able decide how and where to build proper arenas. Of 16 expansion applications for at least 2-4 NHL franchises, the NHL failed to get even its 4 “done deals”, an expansion that is probably unprecedented in “big 4″ expansion history. This is probably the first time there will be no competition between rival cities for a “big 4″ franchise.
But there are many North American cities that would welcome an NHL hockey franchise with open arms if the terms were right. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their NHL teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and stated three reasonable terms for readmission: good ownership, a proper NHL arena, and an adequate fan base. All three of these cities have fanatical fans, but only Quebec and Winnipeg have met the other two conditions. Winnipeg is already back in the NHL and Quebec will get back in soon, one way or the other.
There are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in North America at present so all four major North American sports leagues are only a fraction of what they could be. Before the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed inevitable that all four leagues would adopt an NFL structure of 2 Conferences of 4 divisions and then expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 meaning 5 teams in each division.
Currently the NHL has 30 teams, meaning that it will eventually expand by 10 more teams to reach this ideal. During Bettman’s time as Commissioner, the NHL has mostly expanded or shifted teams to American cities that were unfamiliar with hockey, in an effort to land a rich American television contract by proving to the networks and their sponsors that hockey was an “American game”. Some have been successful but it has been reported that there have been as many as 10 money-losing American franchises during one season. The most embarrassing moments for the NHL were having to shift the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and the Phoenix Coyote-Hamilton crisis.
I know that the future 40-team NHL will not match my idealized dream. The current front-running expansion city Las Vegas, falls into that category of city so often chosen by Bettman; a city where hockey is unfamiliar to most citizens, and the odds for both success and failure are 50-50. Las Vegas has staged a successful ticket drive but it still remains doubtful whether it will be successful in the long term.
My 10 new expansion teams will not include cities like Las Vegas or Phoenix. All will be hockey-loving cities that more than meet Commissioner Bettman’s condition of a great fan base. I will also assume that every city will also meet Bettman’s other two conditions; good ownership and will have built a proper NHL arena. Based on these conditions, here are the best 10 cities for future NHL expansion.
1. Quebec City
They have already spent $400 million to build a proper arena and have billionaire Quebecor on board as an owner. Quebec is the coming city in Canada and will market not only in the city of over 700,000 but all through Eastern Quebec province and the Maritimes as well. The only thing hampering this overwhelming choice and sure winner is the state of the Canadian dollar against the American one. If that is overcome, Quebec will be one of the strongest franchises in the NHL. Quebec-Montreal may have been the best rivalry in the NHL. Bring it back as soon as possible.
2. Second Southern Ontario, probably Hamilton
Other Southern Ontario possibilities include second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, and London. But Hamilton already has an arena of more than 17,000 and is willing to spend $50 million to modernize it and raise the seating to a more than adequate 18,500. Hamilton has been kicked around enough by the NHL, blowing its chance in the early 1990s to Ottawa and then going through the Phoenix Coyote heartache. Like Quebec it is an overwhelming winner. The only problem besides the Canadian dollar is how to compensate greedy Toronto and Buffalo. But if New York-New York-New Jersey and Los Angeles-Anaheim can settle their differences, then this can be resolved too. And Hamilton-Toronto and Hamilton-Buffalo will be great rivalries.
Seattle should have been Quebec’s partner in this expansion and was even considered the front-runner, ahead of both Quebec and Las Vegas before its inability to solve its arena problem and even whether it really wanted to join the NHL or NBA ultimately caused it to drop out as a “done deal”. But Seattle has deep roots in hockey, competing annually for the Memorial Cup, Canada’s Junior Hockey trophy. In fact Seattle is the first American city to win the Stanley Cup. The real mystery is why it has taken so long to join the NHL. As for rivalries, Seattle-Vancouver, Seattle-Portland, Seattle-San Jose will be as good as any in the NHL. A sure winner if they can get their arena and ownership issues straightened out.
Like Seattle, Portland has deep roots in Canadian hockey at the junior level and has even hosted the Memorial Cup tournament. Since Seattle cannot solve its arena problems, Portland becomes the best American city for NHL expansion. The arena where the NBA Trailblazers play will certainly meet NHL conditions. It was rumored that Portland would bid for a team during this expansion but the NHL’s terms scared it off. A sure winner if Portland joins the NHL. They will have great rivalries with Vancouver, Seattle, and the three California teams.
Milwaukee has deep roots in hockey and would be a front runner for an expansion team if they could get the ownership and arena issues solved. Like Seattle and Portland, the mystery is why it has taken them so long to join the NHL. Like Green Bay in the NFL, they would immediately have Chicago, Minnesota, and Detroit as intense rivals and possibly Winnipeg as well.
6. Second Montreal
At one time, Montreal had two NHL teams, the Canadiens and the Maroons, but the Maroons folded during the Great Depression year of 1938. Montreal is probably big enough now to support two NHL teams. All that is needed is to solve the arena and ownership problems and compensate the Canadiens. There would be no problem with rivalries with the Canadiens, Quebec, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Buffalo, Boston and a returned Hartford.
Hartford would be higher on this list if they could get their act together about the ownership and arena issues. Whereas Bettman’s tour of 2010 provoked direct positive action in both Winnipeg and Quebec, nothing has been done in Connecticut to make a returned Whalers a reality. In 2010, the mayor of Hartford stated that the municipality was prepared to back the building of a new arena as part of a downtown reclamation project but nothing came of it. But like Quebec and Winnipeg, a returned Whalers with good ownership in a proper arena would be a winner, sharing the New England market including the large city of Providence, Rhode Island with the Boston Bruins. And a returned Whalers would renew their great rivalry with the Bruins as well as all the teams in the New York City area and every team in the Province of Quebec as well.
8. Third Southern Ontario (Second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, London)
The Southern Ontario hockey market is so good, it could probably support two new franchises. Once Hamilton got settled in, one of the four cities listed above would be a great choice for another Southern Ontario team. This would be a franchise created in the long term. This new Southern Ontario team would have a bundle of rivals including Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit, and every franchise in the Province of Quebec.
9. Long-term Franchise In Canada: Saskatoon
Over the next 10-20 years, the other 8 franchises could be added giving these next two cities a chance to grow. There has been talk of adding a Saskatchewan regional team like the CFL’s Roughriders since the 1970s when the WHA was rumored to establish a franchise. Saskatoon is one of Canada’s fastest growing smaller cities so by the time a decade or two passes, the population of the city and the province may be large enough to support a team. A Saskatoon team would have great rivalries with Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and possibly with Minnesota, Milwaukee, Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, and Spokane.
10. Long-term Franchise In The United States: Spokane
Currently Spokane is one of the smaller, rising cities in the United States but it could be ready for the NHL after one or two decades. Spokane has deep roots in Canadian junior hockey like Portland and Seattle so there would be no problem with a fan base. And Spokane would have many rivals including Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg.