This drawn out NHL expansion period was 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 was left on the NHL’s expansion table was 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 were 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 Winnipeg met the other two conditions. Winnipeg is already back in the NHL and Quebec will get back in if and when it finds a suitable owner that the NHL can accept.
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. Las Vegas, falls into that category of city so often chosen by Bettman; a city where hockey is unfamiliar to most citizens. However owner Bill Foley and his management team did an outstanding job and Las Vegas can be deemed a success in what seemed a doubtful market
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.
I’ve recently updated this file to meet the changed conditions that have occurred. When I originally wrote it, I had bought the NHL’s explanation that it was keeping Quebec out of the league because of the Canadian dollar. In fact they have “deferred” the Quebec bid because they do not like the potential owner who has many enemies on the NHL Board. Also it can be assumed that Seattle now has a team and merely has to go through a token approval process. And it can probably be assumed that Houston is now a “done deal” which the NHL will announce once the Seattle approval process is complete.
The other big change of course is that Las Vegas got admitted and is a resounding success thanks to good ownership and management. When I originally wrote this article two years ago, I would not have chosen Las Vegas, but the good work at the ownership and management level has proven that a doubtful city be turned into a winner. Another new development is whether the Arizona Coyotes will survive. I am predicting that once conditions are right, the Coyotes will be shifted to Quebec City. That way, an unfortunate franchise that probably will not get a new arena built for them in Phoenix, will find a suitable new home while at the same time, the NHL will not have to accept a Quebec bidder whom they find unsuitable.
Even though the NHL can now be considered a 32 team league, I’ll still assume that their ultimate aim is 40 teams in an NFL type structure. And though they only have 8 positions open, I’ll still list 10 cities that would be good choices to fill out the remaining openings. And there is no guarantee that the NHL will stop at 40 teams. In an NFL type structure, it is just as easy to expand to 48 teams (6 teams to a division) as it is to expand to 40. I have made corrections to this article that will reflect the latest updates. Originally I had listed Seattle as a candidate but it is a safe assumption to conclude that Seattle has already been admitted to the NHL, so I’ll have to replace to replace it with another city.
1. Quebec City
They have already spent $400 million to build a proper arena and all they need to get is a suitable owner whom the NHL will accept. Quebec is the coming city in Canada and will market not only in the city of over 800,000 but all through Eastern Quebec province and the Maritimes as well. Because of the ownership problem, I am betting that Quebec will get a relocated team, probably the Coyotes instead of an expansion team. A returned 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.
Originally, this was Seattle’s position, but it can be safely assumed that Seattle will go through a token approval process and then be accepted. I predict that Houston will be the next city to get an expansion team and that the NHL is only waiting for the Seattle approval process to be completed before they announce what is right now an unspoken “done deal”. Houston did not make my original list. They actually belong on my list of secondary cities: Not as good as my best choices which all have indisputable great hockey fan bases, but ones that have a reasonable shot of being a resounding success. I would rate these cities with at least a 50% chance of being successful. I can live with a Houston franchise. It is the largest American city without NHL hockey and would be a great rival for Dallas. Other cities on my “secondary list” would include San Francisco, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, second Chicago, and San Diego. And ANY Canadian city that got big enough would automatically jump onto my list of top 10 cities. In this article, I’ve only listed the ones that are currently feasible.
Like Seattle, Portland has deep roots in Canadian hockey at the junior level and has even hosted the Memorial Cup tournament. After Seattle, 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. They have built a new arena, but is it big enough for hockey and is it too basketball friendly like the Barclay Center where the New York Islanders currently play. 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, once completely in the doldrums when I wrote this article, now has a good chance to return to the NHL soon. The mayor of Hartford and the Connecticut governor want to update the old XL Center. If the NHL can accept a renovated Seattle arena, there is no reason why they would not accept a renovated Hartford arena. When Bettman made his tour of 2010, he certainly affirmed that Hartford would be welcomed back if they met his conditions. Once the arena renovation is finally settled, all Hartford needs is to find an investor who would front a Hartford bid. Hartford with a proper arena and good ownership is a certain winner like the other cities on this list. They share the New England market including the large city of Providence, Rhode Island with the Boston Bruins. 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 6 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.