The NHL Is Committed To Becoming A 40 Team League

If as reported last year, Hartford either suitably renovates the XL Center or replaces it with a new NHL-ready one, it will seal the commitment of the NHL to becoming a 40 team league. There will be no turning back. Unlike the NFL which prefers to strip cities of their franchises instead of expanding beyond the current symmetrical 32-team league (see St. Louis-Los Angeles), the NHL is determined to reach the next symmetrical number of 40 teams. That will mean realignment into the same structure as the NFL, 2 conferences with 4 divisions, only there will be 5 teams to a division, not 4.

Of course the NHL could also shift weak franchises, but considering how it fought tooth and nail to keep the Arizona Coyotes out of Hamilton, moving teams is probably the last option to be considered. Besides if it is able to get away with its $500 million entry fee, there’s at least $4.5 billion to be made in expansion fees from 9 new teams.

The current situation for NHL expansion is like the situation that existed in Europe when World War 1 broke out: Once one country went to war, that triggered the others to come in. In the NHL’s case, there are commitments that will trigger expansion to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams in a revised NFL-like structure. Symbolically, a new Hartford arena and a suitable owner will have the same effect on NHL expansion that the murder of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo had on European politics in 1914. To see what will happen, it is necessary to examine the things the NHL is currently committed to. Note that shifting franchises can blunt expansion, but as stated above, that is not a preferred option of the NHL.

1. Commitment #1: Restore Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford

In 2010, Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission: great fan-base (which all three cities have); suitable owner; and a proper NHL arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee). This was the first open sign that the NHL was interested in expansion since the last expansion in 2000 and if all three cities came back that would increase the number of teams to 33, one more than the symmetrical 32 limit. Instead Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift of Atlanta. Quebec is trying to come back but is stuck at the ownership level (The owner of the Quebecor bidder is unsuitable to the NHL).

But the admission of Quebec or Hartford by expansion instead of by franchise shift is awkward because they are eastern cities and that infringes with the NHL’s next two commitments:

2. Commitment #2: The NHL wants balanced conferences
3. Commitment #3: The NHL does not want to shift an eastern team back to the west

The NHL wants a balanced league with an equal number of happy franchise owners in each conference. But Detroit and Columbus were not happy being in the Western Conference because of travel expenses and time infringements and were shifted east. Now Quebec and Hartford whom the NHL is unofficially committed to want back into the league tilting the imbalance between the conferences even further. Adding Quebec and Hartford by expansion makes an 18 team Eastern Conference meaning that 3 more western cities have to be added to balance things. And neither Detroit, Columbus, nor any other eastern team wants to be shifted west for the reasons listed above unless it was a temporary measure that would be resolved within a year or two.

By adding Quebec and/or Hartford to the league by expansion, the NHL is now either a 32-33 team league and the resolution of the balance problem means that league is automatically committed to expanding to either 34 or 36 teams to restore conference balance. This automatically triggers commitment #4:

4. Commitment #4: Once the league reaches 32 teams or better, realign into a NFL-like structure

Although this has never been stated and is therefore unofficial, realigning the league into the NFL structure listed above makes the most sense. It is an easier structure for fans (and everyone) to understand and follow; divisions with 4 or 5 teams in them instead of large unwieldy conferences. The playoff structure will become more understandable and easier to follow as well. And realigning the NHL into this pattern allows the league to easily expand to 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division).

Now that the NHL is either 34 or 36 teams, it makes sense to continue expanding to fulfill commitment #5:

5. Commitment #5: Balance up the new divisions

It makes no sense to have some of the new divisions with 5 teams and other divisions with 4. Assuming that the NHL now has 36 teams, four more teams, two eastern, and two western will be added making the league a symmetrical 40 teams. Don’t worry about lack of markets. There are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada so all four major professional sports leagues are only a fraction of what they could be. And some extremely large metropolitan areas might end up with more than one team, like New York and Los Angeles currently are in the NHL.

Just for fun, here are some of the possible contenders for an NHL franchise. (This is my opinion. There are lots more potential bidders. This is who I think will make the most sense as new NHL members.)

East: Quebec, Hartford, Hamilton, second Toronto, second Montreal, Providence, Baltimore, Birmingham, Louisville, third southern Ontario, shifted Nashville, and Memphis

West: Seattle, Saskatoon, Spokane, Victoria, Portland, San Francisco, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and second Chicago

There are plenty of contenders but the NHL scared most of them away with that $500 million entry fee. But with NHL’s unofficial commitment to becoming a 40 team league, the door is wide open for 9 new teams.

6 thoughts on “The NHL Is Committed To Becoming A 40 Team League

    • Thanks for reading and commenting on my article, S/Captainamazing. I have read and enjoyed your article too. I do have a difference of opinion with you on some of your proposals and there have been new developments since you have written it.

      1. Future NHL structure

      You propose 6 divisions and your future teams/realignment are all well thought out and geographically congruent. I don’t think that will happen. It is easier to change the current NHL into a NFL structure of 2 Conferences of 4 Divisions, each with 4 teams, 32 teams in all. That way it is not only easier to expand the league to 40 teams (5 teams to a division) but to the next symmetrical number 48 teams meaning that each division will have your proposal of 6 teams to a division.

      2. Hartford/Rhode Island

      Hartford is finally taking some tangible steps to bringing back the Whalers. I prefer a brand new arena to be built but there is a current proposal to renovate the 41 year old XL Center to an NHL acceptable 19,000 seats costing $250 million. The mayor of Hartford and the state governor have also sent a letter to the New York Islanders, who it is known want out the low-seating Barclay Center that has obstructive view seats and bad ice and want them to relocate to the renovated XL Center. Whether anything comes of this is uncertain. There are other proposals for the Islanders being considered. But it is doubtful based on these events that NHL will go to Providence (Rhode Island).

      3. London

      London is one of my five possible choices for more southern Ontario teams. Unfortunately during last census (2016) it was revealed that London had a poor population growth. London has still not broken the half-million barrier and Toronto, Kitchener, and Hamilton had substantial growth instead. I like the combination of London-Hamilton as two more southern Ontario teams but most likely if the NHL finally does place a second southern Ontario team it will be either second Toronto, or Hamilton which is willing to update Copps Coliseum to an acceptable 18,500 seats.

      4. Arizona Coyotes

      Is there going to be an Arizona Coyotes in the future? Glendale does not want them anymore and would prefer an empty arena and in response Bettman and the Coyotes owner have stated that the Coyotes have no future in Glendale and want to move to somewhere else in Phoenix. But a deal to build a new arena in Tempe has been rejected. Currently there is a bill being debated in the Arizona State Legislature to provide financial assistance to build a new arena in downtown Phoenix but it is doubtful that it will pass, given the ill will between the Coyotes, Glendale and the greater Phoenix area, the fact that they already built one arena for them that was not a success and is only 13 years old, and the poor teams they have iced over the years. There have been rumors that the Coyotes owners have been talking to Portland and Seattle about relocation. Currently this on the front burner so we will have to pay close attention to see what happens.

      5. Seattle

      Seattle would be the number 1 American city for expansion if they could get their heads together about a new arena. I agree with you that it is a no-brainer choice to put a team there. Where I would disagree with you is about their name. When Ottawa rejoined the NHL, they brought back their original name of Senators. I’d like to see Seattle bring back the Metropolitans. The Metropolitans are in fact the first American city to win the Stanley Cup so they have some tradition going for them. The 1919 Stanley Cup Final was actually being played in Seattle between the Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens, when city officials called off the match (tied 2-2) because of the world wide influenza epidemic, thus preventing Seattle from winning the Cup a second time. It is strange after nearly a century that Seattle has never joined the NHL.

      Thanks for replying to me and feel free to reply to these comments or comment on some of my other articles.

  1. If Seattle does get the 32nd franchise, my next 4 predictions would be: Quebec for Atlantic, Portland for Pacific, Kansas City for Central, and Cleveland for Metropolitan. Quebec has the Videotron Centre and is NHL ready, just needs an ownership palatable to the NHL board, Kansas City has the beautiful Sprint Center and is NHL ready, would cut travel down even more. Very surprising that there is no ownership group or that the NHL is paying attention there, but if they’re going to have a 40 team league, KC will have a team there in the next phase. Portland has an NHL ready arena in the Moda Center, but is Paul Allen ready to own an NHL
    team? Would be another easy fit for the Pacific, if added. Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena would be great, and owner Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers has made no secret of his love for the NHL and has said he would love to own an NHL team. With an example of the rivalry between Toronto and Cleveland, between the MLB and NBA teams, adding an NHL team will fuel that even more, adding to that with Columbus there, NHL could really flourish in Ohio, which the NHL would want. So now where would the 4, adding to 40 will go? My predictions: Hartford; Atlantic, Houston; Central, San Diego; Pacific, Baltimore; Metropolitan, these are just my guesses, but I put Baltimore there because there isn’t a snowballs chance Atlanta will get a 3rd shot at an NHL franchise even though it would make logical sense, but is highly unlikely, I think.

    • Thanks for commenting Wayne. I agree with a lot of your choices and disagree with some of the others. I wrote an article on this blog last year (which is probably the most popular on this blog that I ever wrote. Check it out) listing my 10 choices to bring the NHL up to 40 teams. (Note: I never chose Las Vegas so my future NHL will look much different to what it will really look like.) All are intense hockey loving cities. They are Quebec; second southern Ontario probably Hamilton; second Montreal; third southern Ontario (one of second Toronto, Kitchener, London, Oshawa – this is a long term Canadian choice); Saskatoon (a second long term Canadian choice); Seattle; Portland; Hartford; Milwaukee; Spokane (long term American choice). In addition which I didn’t list in that article is a group of “secondary” cities that are not the best choices but I could agree to take a chance on. This group would include Houston, Baltimore, Kansas City, San Francisco, Oklahoma City, second Chicago, and Salt Lake City. So you see I like a lot of your selections as either a first or second choice.

      As for your other 2 choices:

      San Diego – A surprise bid. I don’t think they have much roots in hockey. An arena would probably have to be built too. It’s a large city but its lack of hockey roots and my list of too many other better cities for another far western NHL franchise make it highly unlikely you’ll see a San Diego team within the next two decades.

      Cleveland – I have written two articles on this blog (and others on other blogs) about why Cleveland, (and Indianapolis and Cincinnati too) despite the success of the Lake Erie Monsters will not get a team. Check them out for more detailed reasons. Briefly Cleveland had an NHL team in the 1970s for 2 years which was an absolute disaster and may have had the worst attendance in a modern NHL arena in NHL history. The team was quickly merged into the Minnesota North Stars. The memory of that disaster has never left the NHL. You are right that Cleveland has a basket full of NHL rivals but all the NHL has to do is remember what happened and that’s enough to scare them away from Cleveland no matter how many fans the Monsters draw.

      Just in case you don’t know, here a few updates on some of your choices.

      Quebec – You are absolutely right about the ownership problem. You can read lots of my articles on this blog about it. Gary Bettman has to work behind the scenes to find a suitable owner. But so far there has been no announcement that either a better owner will make a bid or a troubled NHL franchise will be relocated there.

      Hartford – Hartford is finally taking some active steps to get the Whalers back. They say they want to spend $250 million to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center. Whether that will be enough to please the NHL or whether they should build a new arena is debatable. Certainly the NHL wants them back in the league. Hartford has also recently written a letter to the owners of the New York Islanders who are having attendance problems in a bad arena, the Barclays Center, inviting them to move to Hartford when the renovations are complete and become the new Hartford Whalers. We’ll have to see if anything comes of this.

      Kansas City – They’ve got the arena like you say. But many investors do not trust the Kansas City market which is why I have listed it as a secondary choice. Kansas City had an NHL franchise briefly in the 1970s too but it did not work out and the franchise moved after 2 years. Today that franchise is the New Jersey Devils. The NHL has played exhibition games in the Sprint Center which have been either half full or sold out, depending on who was playing. And potential investors openly stated they do not like the NHL’s $500 million expansion fee. If Milwaukee got its act together about an arena and ownership, they would be a much better mid-western choice.

      Thanks for commenting on this article. Feel free to reply to me or read and comment on some of my other articles on this blog.

  2. I’ve been perusing the site and found this article.
    While the thoughts are interesting, there are a few things which apparently have not been taken into account.
    1.) Oversaturation of current markets. You’ve mentioned not one but two additional teams in the Greater Toronto Area as part of the Path To 40. How’s that working out for the NYC Metro area? Rangers are the oldest and most beloved franchise, while the Islanders are still working on returning to Long Island, and the Devils are just hanging around. Any new team in the GTA would likely have to pay hefty fees to the Leafs and Sabres. Same for any 2nd teams in Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, etc.
    2.) San Francisco? They just built a new arena to lure the Golden State Warriors across the bay. The NHL would prefer to be the primary/controlling tenant, and given the current real estate market in San Fran, that’s just not happening. Also, they’d have to fork over market entry fees to San Jose (which was the NHL’s daring yet successful entry into that market area). Which brings me to…
    3.) Cleveland? I’m not knocking Cleveland, but the reason the NHL preferred Columbus was current and future growth with minimal invasion from other major leagues. Columbus may not have the greatest history, but the fans have taken to the franchise well.
    4.) Rhode Island… would be the 3rd team in a packed market, just like your 3rd GTA team or the New Jersey Devils. Huge expansion fee, hefty market indemnity fee, and then they’ll struggle financially for a long time to either break even or relocate. Cute idea, but ultimately, it’s a minor league spot for the foreseeable future. Your inclusion of such smaller markets has me wondering if perhaps you’re not too keen on the big picture. Hartford, absolutely. But adding a 3rd team to the New England area just doesn’t seem feasible for at least a few decades.
    5.) Spokane, Victoria (aka 2nd Vancouver), Baltimore (too close to 4 other franchises), Birmingham (lol)… nice, but hold your horses. Those markets would work if the NHL was looking BEYOND 40.
    6.) Focus on the primary targets first before considering minor league cities. Houston (Les Alexander selling the Rockets opens up the door there), Seattle (taking major strides towards arena solutions), Portland, Quebec City, Hartford, Milwaukee, and San Diego would be my top 7 contenders (and would balance current conferences out at 19 each). Next two spots could be up for debate, but central placement (i.e. Midwest heading North, such as KC, OKC, Saskatoon, would enable flexibility for the move BEYOND 40.
    7.) Well written article, good stuff.

  3. Thanks for commenting JBJ. I’ll go over your points one by one.

    1. You’re right about the New York area. The Rangers (who have done the worst of the 3 teams in the past 40 years) are THE New York team while the other two can be treated as also-rans at times. Southern Ontario is different. First of all, it is a much better hockey market than the New York area. A Toronto-Hamilton rivalry is a natural, a sure winner. A third Southern Ontario team would be a long-term prospect after the Hamilton team got established. But the way the population is growing it is a good bet in the long term. There is a choice of 4 other locations; second Toronto, Oshawa, Kitchener, and London. But like you say, the main obstacle is compensation to the Maple Leafs and Sabres who don’t want to share this rich market. If there was no compensation problem, Hamilton could be started tomorrow.

    2. Yes, I’ve been following the San Francisco arena. Adding another Bay area team would be nice but all the talk has been about basketball. Still it is a possibility. I have 10 top choices (I’ve listed them in another article, but I’ll list them for you now, 5 in Canada and 5 in the United States): Quebec, second southern Ontario (Hamilton), second Montreal, third southern Ontario, and Saskatoon. Seattle, Portland, Hartford, Milwaukee, Spokane. In addition, ANY Canadian city once it got big enough would be a suitable choice and there are about 7 or 8 American cities that I would take a chance on as a possibly good secondary choice. I would put San Francisco in this secondary group.

    3. You’ve obviously not read my two articles about Cleveland and hockey’s “Death Valley” of Ohio-Indiana. For some mysterious reason, top level hockey is unpopular in this strip. The NHL will not consider Cleveland because of the horrible memory of the Cleveland Barons who were in the NHL for two seasons in the 1970s.

    4. Rhode Island? Somebody else was in favor of it but it is not unreasonable as a long term prospect if the New England population significantly increased. Right now there is probably only room for 2 teams, Boston and either Hartford or Providence. But like 3rd southern Ontario, if the New England area became a huge mega-city like the New York area with 19 million people, a 3rd New England team would have a reasonable chance of success.

    5. No I am not looking beyond the 40 team mark. But there are approximately 60 possible North American cities who could have major league teams so 48 team leagues are not unreasonable. I simply listed a group of cities where hockey might have the best chance of success. There are many more besides the ones I chose.

    6. The primary targets are the 10 cities I listed above. (Note: My future NHL will not look anything like what we will see. I would not have chosen Las Vegas and it is already in.) I like all your choices except San Diego which I don’t think has many roots in hockey. Still there is talk about building an arena there and if San Diego does build an arena it has to be taken seriously because it is a western city and the NHL wants to balance its conferences and realign.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s