As noted in my first article about Seattle joining the NHL, there are important consequences for several cities. In a previous article, I described what the consequences could be for Hartford. In this article I will try to project what the consequences could be for Quebec City and Phoenix.
First a brief recap for those people who have not read any of my numerous articles about Quebec, Phoenix, and NHL expansion on this blog. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman visited the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand again. At the time, the NHL consisted of 30 teams, so readmitting all three cities meant that the NHL would grow to 33 teams, one more than the symmetrical number of 32 that the NFL has.
This implied two important developments: If the NHL could reach 32 teams like the NFL, it would probably realign into the type of structure the NFL has. And by adding a 33rd team, it also meant that the NHL would not limit itself to the 32 symmetrical number like the NFL but continue on, probably to the next symmetrical number of 40, meaning 2 conferences with 4 divisions, each with 5 teams. Unfortunately an ownership crisis occurred in Atlanta and Winnipeg was used to resolve it.
When he toured the three cities, Bettman listed three factors that every new expansion/relocation city must have before the NHL would award a team (no mention of any expansion/relocation fee). These were a good fan base (which all three cities possessed), a proper NHL arena, and s suitable owner. There was no problem accepting Winnipeg which had all three factors covered. Quebec and Hartford are in various stages of satisfying the NHL’s terms.
The NHL is also committed to balanced conferences. They switched Detroit and Columbus to the east and Winnipeg to the west and have now added Las Vegas and Seattle to even things up. That still hasn’t stopped the NHL’s appetite for expansion since they probably want to grow to 40 teams and can get expansion fees of $500 million and then $650 million along the way. There are several other cities known to want a team: Quebec City, Hartford, Houston, and Hamilton/second southern Ontario. Probably there are more.
Unfortunately the NHL is currently stuck with two expansion/relocation problems; Quebec City and Phoenix. In Phoenix, the problem is the arena factor. The citizens of Glendale told the NHL that it was preferable to have an empty arena in the future than have the Arizona Coyotes continue to play there. Bettman and the Arizona ownership publicly agreed. Bettman still wanted an Arizona team located in a new downtown arena to be built in Phoenix. He stood before the Arizona Legislature to plead for public money to build a new arena, whereupon the anti-Coyote opponents, many of whom came from Glendale counter-argued that why should more good public money be spent on a franchise that has only once iced a competitive team in its history.
Bettman tried to argue that it would all change with a new arena, but just when he needed to see a competitive team the most, the Arizona ownership and management have presented him with one of the worst teams in Phoenix history, one that was out of playoff contention after only the first ten games of the current season. Barring a miracle, there is no way the Coyotes are going to get any public money for a new arena. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns ownership publicly insulted the Coyotes by renovating their current arena to make it more basketball friendly instead of accepting a proposal to build a new arena in partnership with them.
In Quebec City, the problem is the ownership factor. The NHL loves the entire market of several million people, which stretches from half way to Montreal eastward to include all eastern Quebec province and all four Maritime provinces. The city of Quebec itself has now a metropolitan population of over 800,000. The league also loves the new Quebec Videotron arena which they rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and pre-season Montreal Canadiens games. But the NHL will never accept Pierre Karl Peladeau as owner because he supports the Quebec separatist political party and made insulting racist comments about the current Montreal Canadiens owner and who has many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist as an owner.
The NHL has never announced a rival bid from a suitable owner from the Quebec area so the obvious solution is to keep the current Arizona Coyote ownership and team, move it out of a city where there will be no arena to play in when the current lease expires, and relocate it in Quebec so that Peladeau is out of the picture. That will mean another conference imbalance, so the NHL needs to work behind the scenes to get two more western expansion cities.
Bettman could not be more overjoyed that the new owner of the NBA Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta supports an NHL team in Houston, probably the American city after Seattle that the NHL wants to get a franchise in the most. Even though nothing has been announced, a future Houston team is almost a certain “done deal” like Seattle.
The problem is finding a second western city. There are plenty of candidates. Portland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, even Saskatoon and San Diego are possibilities. All except Saskatoon (and it is one of Canada’s fastest growing smaller cities so that a franchise at the end of two decades is a realistic possibility) have potential markets to support an NHL team. Milwaukee and San Francisco are building arenas but they may be too basketball friendly and result in another mess like the New York Islanders are currently experiencing with the Barclay’s Center. Kansas City has an excellent arena but nobody seems to trust the fan base which once had a team briefly in the 1970s.
Upstart Oklahoma City which snatched away the NBA Seattle Supersonics after making a failed bid to get an NHL team in the 1990s could be a good choice. Portland, already lined up for a new expansion MLB team and has deep roots in Canadian junior hockey like Seattle is probably the best choice to join Houston. And there is talk in San Diego, now without their NFL Chargers that they will consider building a new arena with the NHL in mind. If they do, they will be a serious contender.
So the admission of Seattle is good news for Quebec City if this speculated plan comes off. Bettman wants to put a team in Quebec City, probably the best current Canadian market without an NHL franchise. He openly consorted with the Quebec City mayor and provincial premier and urged them to complete the new arena even though he probably told them privately that Peladeau was an unacceptable owner. To not honor his promise is an embarrassment for him. Even Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has hinted that he wants a Quebec City team, just not Peladeau at the Board table. At the same time, Bettman wants to get out of the mess in Phoenix as best as possible. If the NHL can find two more western expansion cities, expect them to be used to kill two birds with one stone, the problems of Phoenix and Quebec.