If you dig deep and read between the lines, the current home of the New York Islanders in Brooklyn, the Barclay’s Center provides valuable lessons about the status of NHL hockey in the United States, how to build sports arenas, and even about the future development of the NHL. And none of it is good.
To re-summarize, the New York Islanders have been treated badly since their glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their original home, the Nassau Coliseum held just over 16,000 seats at its peak. That was okay back then when the median seating for the NHL was in the 16,000-17,000 range but it is not acceptable now when the median is probably over 18,000. As the years passed, the Coliseum became the second smallest arena in the NHL ahead of only Winnipeg. The Islanders more than merited a bigger, more modern arena but nothing has ever come from it.
Eventually the Islanders moved to the Barclay’s Center which has even less seating than their old home and to make matters worse, has bad ice, and obstructive view seats for hockey. The Islanders found they could not sell out even this reduced seating venue and had the second worst attendance in the NHL last season, ahead of only Carolina. And as long as they remain in the Barclay’s Center, it is unlikely attendance will improve.
The Barclay’s Center was built for the NBA Brooklyn Nets. It was not meant to be the home for an NHL team. In fact there is talk that the arena wants the Islanders gone soon. The NHL franchise is in peril. The options are build a new arena, return to Nassau, or move to Hartford.
The NHL will always be at a disadvantage when arenas are built when compared to the NBA. Basketball seating will always be greater than hockey because more seats can be added to the floor of the arena. The Barclay’s Center provides several important lessons for building arenas. First, it is possible to build a bad arena for both sports. Second, it is possible to build an arena that is good for basketball but bad for hockey. Third, it is impossible to build an arena that is good for hockey but will be bad for basketball. And fourth, when designing and building sports arenas, the architect should think hockey first because basketball will always fall into place.
There is no problem building arenas in Canada where hockey is number one. Arenas are always built with hockey in mind. If new arenas are built in Calgary and Ottawa, these cities automatically become contenders for a new NBA franchise as well as their current NHL teams. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman paid his first visit to the new Edmonton arena, built for hockey, he was so impressed he has vowed to reward the city with an All Star Game and to be the host of the NHL draft.
If only there was the same attitude in the United States. The new Detroit arena that will open next season will be satisfactory for the Red Wings. And the new Las Vegas franchise had its arena designed for the Knights. But in the United States, that’s as far as it goes.
Right now there are two new arenas being built in Milwaukee and San Francisco and they only have the NBA in mind. The new arenas have been designed for basketball which could make any new NHL expansion team face the same problems the New York Islanders have. The new San Francisco arena will have approximately 18,000 seats, meaning a new NHL franchise will have seating well below the NHL median. The new Milwaukee arena will only have 17,500 seats for basketball which translated to the NHL could make it the third smallest arena in the league.
It is clear when American arenas are built in this manner, what the status of hockey in the United States is. And with the NHL folding the Atlanta Thrashers and the potential debacle in Phoenix, the American environment is not conducive to building hockey-friendly facilities. The NHL wants to stay in Phoenix but pulling out of an arena that is only 13 years old and was built specifically for the inglorious Coyotes is not going to induce the locals to build yet another new arena in the Phoenix area. And if they did, they would more inclined to reward the NBA Suns, not the Coyotes.
Another potential mess is Seattle. They were the front runner for an NHL franchise in the recent expansion, but lost out when they could not resolve their arena issue. How would a new Seattle arena be built? Most of the talk has been about getting back the Supersonics. Almost all the talk has been about a new NBA owner being the owner of a new arena with an NHL team as tenants. Would a new Seattle arena be suitable for hockey under this arrangement?
Commissioner Bettman listed the arena as being one of the three most important factors to be considered when offering terms to Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford to return to the NHL. If arenas in the United States are going to be built to accommodate the NBA first, it also brings into question the future development of the NHL. Under Bettman, the NHL has followed a pro-American path, with expansion and relocation mostly in the United States, mainly to get a good American television contract. But NHL hockey cannot grow in the United States if new arenas are built like the Barclay’s Center. Bad new hockey arenas could mean that the growth of the NHL in the United States is at a dead end.
Would that mean a significant change in direction in NHL policy? Expanding the NHL in Canada or starting a new branch in Europe? Right now the future of the Arizona Coyotes and New York Islanders are unresolved. And the NHL wants to expand to at least 32 teams in balanced conferences so that it can realign. The arena problem is tangled up in these issues. Certainly the Barclay’s Center and the new arenas in Milwaukee and San Francisco confirm that in the chase for status in the United States, in a four league race, the NHL is in fourth place.