In the fallout of the news that Seattle will get an NHL team (Technically they are still not accepted, but the NHL is not going to refund a $650 million expansion fee. Accepting Seattle is a mere formality now.), there are many repercussions that have occurred. In this article, I’ll explore what this means for Hartford.
Seattle’s admission is good news for Hartford. Before explaining why, let’s recap. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their teams back in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and offered them terms for readmission. There were three reasonable factors that he wanted met. (No mention of any expansion fee whether $500 million or $650 million.) These were an adequate fan base (which all three have), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable owner.
The fact that the NHL wanted all three cities back meant that the size of the NHL would grow from 30 to 33 teams, one more than the 32 team limit the NFL had. Expansion to 32 teams would mean that the NHL could realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, each having 4 divisions, and the 33rd team meant that the NHL was not going to stop at the NFL limit but keep expanding, probably to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams, meaning 8 divisions with 5 teams in them. Unfortunately, an ownership crisis in Atlanta occurred and Winnipeg had to be used to solve it. The Jets are back leaving Quebec and Hartford to try to return too.
The most important piece of good news for Hartford by Seattle’s readmission is that NHL has said they will accept renovated old arenas instead of building new ones. The Key Arena in Seattle is 55 years old and its dubious renovation costing $600 million will create a hockey arena that will be the third smallest in the NHL for seating capacity (2nd smallest if the New York Islanders get a new arena). If the NHL can accept Seattle’s renovation, they should have no problem with Hartford renovating a 41 year old arena that will have over 19,000 seats.
That leaves the third factor, finding a suitable owner. To explain how important is this factor, let’s return to the Quebec situation. Quebec has an acceptable fan base and the NHL loves the new Videotron arena which they rewarded with an exhibition World Cup game and Montreal preseason exhibition games every year. But Quebec does not have the third factor, an acceptable owner. The owner of the prospective bidder, Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau, has made many enemies on the NHL Board by his offensive racist statements about a Board member, his support of a political separatist party, and his general untrustworthiness. Quebec will not get the Nordiques back until he is gone and an acceptable owner makes a bid. This situation should be a valuable lesson for Hartford and all future NHL expansion teams.
So besides having deep pockets, a future Hartford Whalers owner has to be morally/socially acceptable and hopefully with no political ambitions. He/she has to be a sound businessman/woman who will put the team and the NHL first. So far in public at least, nobody has stepped forward and offered to front a Hartford bid
The Connecticut governor and the Hartford mayor have tried their own hand at recruiting an owner. They knew the New York Islanders were having arena problems and wrote a letter to the Islander ownership and management, offering them the updated XL Center if nothing is done and their arena crisis cannot be solved. Right now, the Islanders are awaiting a decision within the next six months about whether a new arena will be built for them in the Belmont area. If a new arena is constructed there, any chance of the Islanders becoming the Whalers is over.
The NHL would prefer the Belmont option because they want to keep the Islanders with their glorious history. And a Hartford expansion team means another large expansion fee. So Hartford and Connecticut officials should also be talking to other businessmen, not necessarily from the Hartford area, who are interested in owning an NHL franchise. The Whalers should be a good investment. Like Winnipeg and Quebec, Hartford with a proper arena should be a winner, a sure money maker.
The NHL is striving to become a 40 team league. There are now eight franchise positions still available, four in the east and four in the west. In 2010, the NHL made an unofficial commitment to Hartford if they meet their three factors, so the door is wide open for them to return. Hartford will soon have two of the three factors solved. If they can find a suitable owner who will make a bid, Hartford could be back in the NHL within half a decade.