While everyone should be extending a warm welcome to the NHL’s newest franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights and wishing them well, let’s not forget that the admission of just Las Vegas represents a serious failure for the NHL. This is not the expansion that the NHL wanted. It is only the expansion the NHL could get.
Before the announcement of expansion last year, there was wild speculation about what would happen. There were newspaper stories and websites all over the Internet that even before expansion was formally announced, Las Vegas, Quebec City, second Toronto, and Seattle were “done deals”. Clearly the NHL expected to move beyond the symmetrical 32 team barrier to which the NFL is committed to and begin expanding to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.
This implies that not only was expansion on the table, but probably realignment into an NFL structure of 2 conferences with 4 divisions with 4 then 5 teams in each division. Realignment into an NFL structure not only makes things easier for the fans to understand, it also makes it easy to expand the league to 40 teams (5 to a division) and then to 48 teams (6 to a division).
Before the official announcement of the terms of the expansion, there were all kinds of rumors and expectations. Cities were said to be awaiting NHL expansion for years since the last one in 2000 when Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus were added. During that expansion there were 11 bids submitted including 3 from Houston (who somehow failed to land a team). It was expected to be the same this time.
In 2010, Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand and was probably committed to realignment and becoming a 40 team league. Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift from Atlanta but Bettman was confident that both Quebec and Hartford would seriously consider getting readmitted to the NHL. There was also frustrated Hamilton, fresh from its Phoenix Coyotes misadventure or the second Toronto “done deal”. There was Las Vegas and the other “done deal” Seattle whom the NHL had serious discussions with. There were the failed bidders of 2000, Houston and Oklahoma City. Kansas City had built the Sprint Center in hopes of getting a team. Portland, another hockey hotbed and perhaps the equally good Milwaukee might be induced to submit a bid. And there was the possibility of any surprise bids from other cities. So the NHL announced expansion in rosy expectation.
But the excessive terms, particularly the $500 million expansion fee ruined the NHL’s plans. The terms attracted more public denunciations from investors than bidders. 16 potential applicants were said to be interested, but only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec stayed to the end. Probably the NHL had wanted an expansion of 4 teams; Quebec and three western cities to made realignment possible, consummate their unofficial commitment to Quebec, and balance up the conferences.
To make matters worse, the Quebec bid was submitted by Pierre Karl Peladeau, who had made many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL loved the Quebec fan base and the new arena, the Videotron, but could not abide Peladeau, who made public racist statements about one of the NHL Board members, supports a Quebec separatist political party, and is just too untrustworthy to be admitted as an NHL partner. The Quebec bid has been “suspended” indefinitely until Gary Bettman can find a suitable franchise owner.
So the NHL only got Las Vegas in the end, probably the worst expansion in “big 4″ North American sports league history. This may be the only expansion where there was no competition by rival cities for a sports franchise. The NHL is still unbalanced, nor can it realign into an NFL structure. In the end, the Las Vegas expansion is only a baby step.
Still worse is that the Arizona Coyotes are now potentially without a home in the immediate future. A sensible solution would be to shift the team to Quebec but that will only unbalance the league further. And now Hartford, so long dormant has announced plans to upgrade the XL Center and made an open attempt to lure the New York Islanders who have arena problems of their own. The NHL wants Hartford back but does it want to lose the Islanders and their glorious history? And if Hartford is granted an expansion franchise instead, that only makes the conferences more unbalanced.
But the biggest problem is that the business and investor world has said that an NHL franchise currently is not worth a $500 million expansion fee. So what do Gary Bettman and the NHL Board do now? Refund some of the expansion fee money back to Bill Foley and Las Vegas and then announce a new expansion with a smaller admission fee, more in tune with the market value of an NHL franchise, or do they keep their $500 million fee, announce more expansion and wait in vain for bids that may never come?
At the awards banquet, Bettman claimed that the NHL is no longer interested in expansion. Obviously they have to revise their strategy. Both options could result in an embarrassing loss of face for the NHL. Refund money back to Bill Foley and set a cheaper expansion fee means a climb down. And holding to a $500 million expansion fee resulted in only two bids by fanatics with no competition between rival cities. That’s humiliating enough. What if expansion were announced and NOBODY bid?
But a 31 team NHL is no more suitable than a 30 team league and this holds true for both the NBA and MLB as well. All three leagues have to get to at least 32 teams and realign into an NFL structure for future development. And in the NHL’s case there is pressure on them to bring back both Quebec and Hartford and balance the conferences. For added spice, there is also the ugly Arizona Coyote situation that could mean a franchise shift.
The admission of Las Vegas is not the end of the NHL expansion but only a transitory phase, further complicated by the situations in Quebec, New York, and Phoenix. The dust has definitely not settled. The admission of Las Vegas is only the end of a bad expansion episode. The real drama has yet to occur.