Before going into specifics, here is a list of four of the main problems that are currently oppressing the NHL:
1. The Arizona Coyotes are virtually dead in the area unless they get a new arena which the ownership does not want to pay for and neither the state nor the municipal authorities want to finance. To rub it in further, the NBA Phoenix Suns have said they would rather upgrade their current arena and make it more basketball friendly than share it again with the Coyotes or go halfsies with them on a new arena. The NHL’s dream of a Phoenix franchise may soon be over.
2. The NHL wants Quebec City back in the league, loves the fan base/market and the new arena, but cannot abide the potential bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau who has made many enemies on the NHL Board, has made public, inappropriate racial remarks about a Board member, supports a separatist provincial political party and is generally untrustworthy. Except for the ownership problem, Quebec would probably have a team by now.
3. Though it has not been stated publicly, the NHL wants to realign into an NFL structure of 2 Conferences of 4 Divisions, each with 4 teams. Not only does this make things easier to follow for the fans, but it allows the NHL to expand easily in the future to the next symmetrical numbers of 40 and 48 teams. There are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in North America right now so there will not be any problem finding potential new markets in the future. The last expansion was a humiliating failure when the NHL only got Las Vegas when they probably wanted Quebec (with a suitable owner) and three western cities. 31 teams is no better the previous awkward 30.
4. The NHL has to find a way to straighten out its expansion process. For the last expansion, they set a fee of $500 million which the investment world found unacceptable. The NHL got no competition between rival cities for a franchise and had to settle for only Las Vegas, probably the worst expansion in “big 4″ North American sports leagues history. Something has to give. Either the investment world accepts a $500 million expansion fee or the NHL must set a more realistic lower fee which may mean refunding some money back to Bill Foley, the Las Vegas owner. And if neither side will budge, the NHL could be stuck at the awkward, unacceptable 31 team mark for a long time, maybe decades and more.
The obvious solution to some of these problems is to finally admit defeat in establishing an NHL franchise in Phoenix, transfer the team with the same ownership to Quebec and then announce expansion again, focusing on two western cities to balance up the conferences so that the league can realign. The NHL of course wants to have its cake and eat it too. To them, the ideal solution is to get enough Phoenix fans to finally make a Phoenix NHL franchise feasible, including a willingness to spend public finances on yet another new downtown arena; for a suitable Quebec City owner to finally appear, complete with a cheque for $500 million who will then be granted the returned Nordiques franchise; and for the investment world to graciously accept a $500 million expansion fee without any objections, prompting two western cities to join Quebec in bidding for an NHL franchise so that the league can finally realign.
Alas, such ideal dreams have yet to materialize. To break down the list of problems that are thwarting the NHL’s ideal solution:
1. After rejecting the proposed Quebec owner, the Quebec bid has been officially “suspended” indefinitely by the NHL. For a whole year, there has not been any solution offered and since finding a suitable owner is being done behind closed doors, it is difficult to determine if any progress has been made. No new owner (preferably a French Canadian Quebecer) has appeared in 2017 any more than one appeared in 1995 when Quebec lost its team. And if Quebec does have to get its team back by franchise shift like Winnipeg, will the fans and the powers that be accept an owner who may not speak a word of French?
2. Other eastern cities as well as western ones may want an NHL franchise. Hartford, to whom the NHL has made the same unofficial commitment as to Quebec wants to update its old arena by $250 million and openly solicited the owners of the New York Islanders to become a returned Hartford Whalers. And Hamilton is willing to spend $50 million to update Copps Coliseum if the NHL will finally tell Toronto and Buffalo to set some reasonable compensation terms. This of course will upset the balance between the two conferences even further but it is a minor problem. Expand now, realign, and then balance up the conferences later.
3. More serious for Hartford and Seattle is whether the NHL will accept renovated old arenas instead of brand new ones. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman flew into Calgary and urged municipal officials to build a brand new arena. The pouty Flames ownership has indulged in “or else” talk about building a new arena instead of accepting a cheaper renovation of the 34 year old Saddledome. But if the NHL cannot accept a renovated 34 year old arena, how can they accept what Seattle and Hartford propose to do on older buildings?
4. After the humiliating last expansion, the NHL has yet to announce what its future expansion fee will be. For now, expansion is a dead issue, but unless the league expands, it cannot realign.
If the idealized NHL dream listed above cannot be realized, what should the NHL do? Bettman made an unofficial commitment to Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford back in 2010 by giving them terms for readmission (fan base, arena, owner) and openly encouraged the Quebec provincial and municipal governments to keep building their new arena despite knowing that the proposed Quebec owner was unsuitable. He can hardly urge a city and a province to spend $375 million tax dollars and not give them anything. Similarly, Hartford and Seattle propose to spend nearly $1 billion tax dollars on renovations between them. He and his Flames ownership supporters will have to climb down on their “new arena or else” stand and accept reasonable renovations to the Saddledome or else tell Hartford and Seattle that they have spent nearly $1 billion tax dollars for nothing.
Here are a few possible alternative policies besides staying stagnant at present.
1. NHL moves Arizona to Quebec but does not realign or expand.
This is the minimum that can be done and at least solves the two worst problems. The NHL’s unofficial commitment to Quebec is resolved and the Phoenix problem is (not without some humiliation) finally settled. One half of Bettman’s Canadian critics disappear. The disadvantage is that realignment and conference balancing get postponed and that the NHL won’t get a $500 million expansion fee from Quebec. There is also the problem of whether Quebec will accept non-French speaking owners.
2. NHL moves Arizona to another western city and does not expand.
This solves the Phoenix problem but nothing more. It keeps things as they are though the Coyotes will now be in (hopefully) a more hockey friendly city with a good arena. But it does not solve the Quebec, realignment, or conference balance problems. Nor does it get any expansion fee money.
3. NHL moves Arizona to Quebec and expands by three western cities.
This solves all four problems. It means that the Quebec and Phoenix problems disappear and only the question of whether Quebec will accept non-French speaking owners remains. (Most likely they will. Only the racists will be discontented.) It means that the NHL can realign and that the conferences will be balanced. It means that the NHL has got some amount of expansion fee from somebody, but not from Quebec. It means that either the NHL has set an expansion fee which the investment world finds acceptable (probably meaning a refund of some expansion money back to Bill Foley, the Las Vegas owner), or that the investment world has finally accepted a $500 million NHL expansion fee. And if Hamilton and Hartford also want to get an NHL franchise too, so what. The league can still realign, collect more expansion fee money, and balance the conferences through more expansion later. That’s a minor problem that can be postponed.
The only thing that is known for sure is that the present situation is unacceptable. The awkward 31 teams are no better than the previous 30. By its failed attempt to bring back Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford via expansion, the NHL has indicated that it is not content to just expand to the current NFL structure of 32 teams, but wants to at least reach the next symmetrical number in such a structure of 40 teams, meaning 5 teams to a division.
Certainly the NHL is going to be focusing on getting western expansion cities to match a shift of the Coyotes to Quebec. Just for fun here are (in my opinion) the best western cities for the NHL to expand to. I’ve listed them in some of my previous articles. Feel free to comment or make other suggestions.
Saskatoon (now or long term)
Spokane (now or long term)
Other Cities Worth Taking A Chance On:
Salt Lake City
Rumored Other Cities: