Right now NHL expansion (or readmission) to Quebec and Hartford is sitting on the back burner in NHL priorities but sooner or later they have to take center stage as front-running issues. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of all three cities including Winnipeg in 2010 and offered all three cities a chance at readmission on reasonable terms; a great fan base, acceptable NHL ownership, and a proper NHL size arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee then). Winnipeg is already back in, Quebec has built an acceptable arena but is stuck at the ownership issue, and now Hartford proposes to renovate its old XL Center and turn the New York Islanders into the Hartford Whalers.
There are issues about all three cities that I have written about on this blog and others over the years: I wonder if it is better to build a brand new arena in Hartford instead of renovating a 41 year old building and I doubt if the NHL will countenance the disappearance of the New York Islanders who have such a glorious history. I write about the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau who is unpredictable, has made enemies on the NHL Board, and the social and political problems of bringing back the Nordiques to Quebec City. And I still don’t like the small size of the Winnipeg arena.
But before I continue writing diatribes about all these issues on this blog, it is well to remember why I write about and care about them anyway. That is what this article is about, not about negatives, but positives. Since I started writing on blogs during the previous decade, I have always supported the return of the NHL to Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford. Why? Because I BELIEVE in those cities because they more than meet what may be the most crucial of Bettman’s three terms, great fan base. All three cities lost their teams in the 1990s, not because they were not getting fan support, but because of ownership and arena issues.
You don’t have to worry about selling tickets and NHL sports merchandise in Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford or educating fans about the nature of the game of hockey, like you might in Las Vegas or some similar city which has been the choice of NHL expansion and relocation all too often during Bettman’s term as Commissioner. All three cities have deep roots in hockey and once enjoyed great rivalries with many of the current NHL teams. Bringing them back with acceptable owners and proper arenas is a no-brainer decision. Gary Bettman, he of Canadian “anti-Canadian” myth who in fact is anything but anti-Canadian, knows that too. He believes in Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford just as much as I do. He would not have made that tour, made expressions of regret at the loss of these cities, and then offer reasonable terms for them if he did not think they could be viable NHL franchises again. And all three cities would not be the bottom-ranked NHL franchises in value but would claim respectable places – Quebec in particular – in the NHL franchise hierarchy.
The Quebec and Hartford issues have to be solved soon. Bettman’s tour and pronouncements are an unofficial commitment by the NHL to bring back these teams, if they meet certain conditions. And as I have written in several articles on this blog, the NHL is probably unofficially committed to becoming a 40 team league with a realigned NFL structure. The only thing that is awkward about readmitting Hartford and Quebec at this time is that they are both eastern cities and the NHL wants to balance its conferences. But certainly there is a place for both cities somewhere in the next ten city NHL expansion.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about future NHL expansion. Last June, I wrote an article that is probably the most popular ever written on this blog listing the 10 North American cities I believe SHOULD get an NHL franchise. Almost every day since then, I have watched its readership grow, even to this day. Obviously NHL expansion is a popular topic with most fans. Unfortunately I don’t know where exactly these readers come from. Certainly Quebec City fans have played a prominent role and there may even be interest from other countries besides Canada and the United States.
When I made my choices I assumed that all the cities would meet Bettman’s terms of good ownership and proper arena. But my choices were based on his third factor, fan base. All my choices have deep roots in hockey; there would be no need to introduce the game to them, and there would be no problem selling tickets and sports merchandise, attracting local media attention, and getting corporate sponsors. The NHL has chosen Las Vegas to be one of its ten new franchises so my idealized future 40 team league will not be the same as theirs. (Now that Las Vegas has joined, I hope they do well and not become another Phoenix.)
Just for the record I’ll re-list them now. (There is the possibility that the NHL will grow to 48 teams, the next symmetrical number, so all 10 can still get in.) There are 5 top Canadian cities: Quebec, second southern Ontario probably Hamilton, second Montreal, third southern Ontario (London, Kitchener, Oshawa, and second Toronto), and Saskatoon. And my 5 top American cities are Seattle, Portland, Hartford, Milwaukee, and Spokane.
And beyond this for North America, there are a few more American cities, not the sure winners listed above, but ones where there could be a reasonable chance for success that I would take a risk on: Kansas City, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Memphis, and Baltimore. And ANY Canadian city if it gets big and rich enough would be an automatic choice. In the long term-very long term are cities like Sherbrooke, Abbotsford, Regina, Halifax, Moncton, Victoria, St. John, etc.
And if I live long enough and maintain good health, I hope to be writing about an NHL branch in Europe too. Cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are as much no-brainer choices for the NHL as Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford. But right now, it is time to wish Las Vegas all the best, add another western city, realign, and then get Hartford and Quebec City into the NHL as soon as possible.