More Western NHL Expansion Coming

Unless you are a rich man from Hartford, Connecticut that has the money and plan to restore the Hartford Whalers in a new NHL size arena, the NHL will not be interested in you very much at this time. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their teams in the 1990s in 2010 and promised them readmission if they met certain terms. Winnipeg is back and once Bettman manipulates Mario Lemieux into fronting an acceptable Quebec City bid, the Nordiques will rejoin the NHL.

So except for Hartford, the NHL is unlikely to talk to eastern bidders who want an expansion team. Though if you are from Hamilton or Baltimore and you knock on his door with $500 million in your hand, you might still be able to twist his arm and get him to reconsider.

But the NHL wants to balance up its conferences after restructuring (see the previous article I wrote about the new NHL structure) and shift either Columbus or Detroit and maybe Nashville back to the east. So right now its priority is to admit two new western teams.

For this article, let’s speculate who is out west and might want to help the NHL out of its current dilemma and become the 33rd and 34th NHL teams providing they too have at least $500 million to spend. This is my own personal ranking of the candidates.

1. Seattle                                             Seattle
Rank: 1
Strengths: Excellent fan base, Deep roots in Canadian Junior Hockey, First American city to win the Stanley Cup
Weaknesses: No NHL arena and dithering and bungling about it, No up front keen investor like Bill Foley, Bungled its front running status during the current expansion joining Hamilton and Houston as number 1 candidates who failed to get an NHL franchise, Can’t decide whether to join the NHL or NBA
Rivals: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, new Portland and San Francisco teams

Seattle is an overwhelming winner if it ever gets its act together about a new arena and which league it wants to join. But it blew its chances during the current expansion and nothing has changed so any city can grab this leader’s team once again.

2. Houston                                        Houston
Rank: 2
Strengths: Largest North American city without hockey, NHL wants the city in badly especially aa a rival for Dallas
Weaknesses: Failed WHA city, Failed in earlier expansion bid joining Hamilton and now Seattle as a front running bidder not to get a team, NHL does not like Houston’s arena, No gung-ho owner like Bill Foley, uncertain fan base
Rivals: Dallas, Arizona, St. Louis, Colorado, Las Vegas, a new Oklahoma City and Kansas City team

The NHL would bend over backwards if Houston would only get its act together. I only rank it number 2 because the NHL wants it so badly. But the obvious indifference to the NHL makes it easy to drop in the rankings.

3. Portland                                     Portland
Rank: 3
Strengths: Deep roots in Canadian Junior hockey, great arena, great fan base
Weaknesses: No gung-ho bidder likes the NHL’s terms
Rivals: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, new Seattle, San Francisco/Oakland teams

The NHL was hoping that Portland would put in a bid during the current expansion but any potential bidder refused to consider the $500 million expansion fee as being not congruent with the true value of an NHL team. Portland with its NHL size arena is probably the best western city for expansion right now.

4. Milwaukee                              Milwaukee
Rank: 4
Strengths: Deep roots in hockey, great fan base, new Milwaukee arena is NHL ready
Weaknesses: No enthusiastic NHL owner has appeared
Rivals: Minnesota, Chicago, Winnipeg, occasional games with eastern team Detroit, new Saskatoon team

Milwaukee would jump ahead of the top three western teams if they could find an enthusiastic owner. It is an overwhelming winner if the city could ever get an NHL franchise.

5. Oklahoma City                 Oklahoma
Rank: 5
Strengths: Upstart city failed to get an NHL expansion team so they grabbed the NBA Seattle Supersonics instead and made a success of them, Enthusiastic fans over minor league hockey
Weaknesses: Can the current arena accommodate hockey?, No potential owner has appeared
Rivals: Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Colorado, Arizona, Las Vegas, new Kansas City and Houston teams

Oklahoma City is the best dark horse city for getting an NHL team. The sports fans there want to prove they are a big league city and so far with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA they have proven it. But until they find a good owner and resolve the arena issue, they remain a long shot.

6. Kansas City                      Kansas City
Rank: 6
Strengths: Great new arena seeking a tenant in both the NHL and NBA
Weaknesses: Failed NHL franchise, Uncertain fan base, Potential bidders denounced the NHL’s greedy terms
Rivals: St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas, Colorado, Arizona, Nashville, Las Vegas, new Houston, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City teams

Uncertain fan base is just not trustworthy. Kansas City has hosted pre-season NHL exhibition games with either great or lousy attendance depending on who was playing. Kansas City once briefly had an NHL team in the 1970s but it did not last long. The new arena is excellent but no potential owner has appeared and the fan base makes it unlikely to really seek a team at such a price.

7. San Francisco/Oakland                          San Francisco
Rank: 7
Strengths: Success of the San Jose Sharks, The bay area is big enough to support two teams
Weaknesses: Failed Oakland team in the 1970s, Potential new arena is being considered only for NBA Golden State Warriors and not the NHL, No supportive owner has appeared
Rivals: San Jose, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Vancouver, new Portland and Seattle teams

San Francisco seems more enthusiastic about basketball than hockey since a potential new arena never mentions a new NHL team. For now the NHL is quite content to leave San Jose as the only team in the bay area.

8. Saskatoon                           Saskatoon
Rank: 8
Strengths: Enthusiastic fan base for a provincial, regional team for the whole Province of Saskatchewan, Same spirit that keeps the CFL Roughriders afloat, One of the few provinces in Canada that is prospering, Saskatoon is one of the fastest growing small cities in Canada, Where are you Ice Edge?, Ineptitude of its western rivals
Weaknesses: The Canadian dollar, Saskatoon despite its recent growth is still a small city, New arena would have to be built within a few years
Rivals: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Chicago, a new Milwaukee team

Despite its small size, the Ice Edge group made a serious bid to get the Phoenix Coyotes and play some of their games in Saskatoon. Gary Bettman invited them to resume contact in the future. Regina is getting a new stadium for the CFL Roughriders so why not an NHL arena for Saskatoon? There was talk about putting a WHA team in Saskatoon in the 1970s. The Canadian dollar is a weakness but Gary Bettman is not letting it stop him from bringing back Quebec and he’ll listen to Ice Edge again if they can come up with the cash and solve the arena problem. And if their western rivals remain so inept, this could be the mouse that roared, and steal an NHL franchise from under their noses.

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2 thoughts on “More Western NHL Expansion Coming

  1. It’s not fair to called Houston’s WHA team a failure; NHL politics left the Aeros out of the mix when the four WHA teams entered the league, and that was shown to be a mistake in hindsight.

    • Thanks for responding Jason. You are right that NHL politics played a role in dismantling the team. Where you are right is that when the WHA first began talks with merging into the NHL, the NHL would only consider it if only 4 WHA teams were involved, and the WHA insisted that three of these teams must come from Canada (Quebec, Winnipeg, and Edmonton). As for the lone American franchise, the WHA opted for New England (Hartford). But this was 1977, three years before the merger took place in 1980 and the NHL, many of whose Board members were bitterly anti-WHA because of the raids on NHL rosters and the salary-bidding war turned the proposal down.

      Where the Aeros goofed was that they refused to hang in anymore with the WHA, since it was still going to continue operations. First they tried to get into the NHL independently of a joint WHA-NHL merger and when that failed, the owner immediately folded the team instead of continuing in the WHA. By 1980 there were only 6 WHA teams left and Cincinnati and Birmingham declined to join the NHL and were paid to fold. But many minds on the NHL Board had changed by 1980 and since the league had folded Cleveland, it was an oddly numbered 17 team league. Adding a fifth WHA team to make the NHL an even 22 team league would have made sense.

      In this situation, bad faith and short-sighted thinking at key moments prevented Houston from becoming an NHL member. First the WHA showed bad faith by agreeing to the NHL proposal of only 4 teams joining the NHL instead of insisting that all of the teams in its league that had a legitimate chance to make it in the NHL be included. Then the Aeros themselves showed bad faith by ditching the WHA and acting as an independent entity instead of remaining with the WHA and holding out until 1980.

      Was Houston a success? Difficult to say. Average attendance by year went up from 4,000 to 9,000 and then declined to 7,000 when the team folded. That’s not good by NHL standards. And what size was the arena? Only Edmonton was playing in a first-class NHL arena of 17,000+ in 1980. When the leagues merged, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford were only playing in 10,000 seat arenas which were enlarged to the barely NHL acceptable 15,000 instead of building modern larger arenas like Edmonton, which played a key role in their demise in the 1990s.

      I still think that Houston was a failure because they showed bad faith by not hanging in, had low attendance by NHL standards, and may have had an arena issue like the other WHA teams to resolve. But your point about NHL politics being involved is valid, a missing 4th factor in the collapse of the Aeros. And you are right about the NHL not accepting Houston being a colossal mistake. Today the NHL would kill to get into Houston if it had a legitimate owner in a proper arena because Houston is the largest North American city without an NHL team and would be the perfect rival for Dallas. Thanks for responding and clarifying things.

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