Hartford Should Get An NHL Guarantee Before Spending

After two decades of doing nothing, it was announced earlier this year that the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut would spend $250 million to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center to 19,000 seats in hopes of getting back the lost Hartford Whalers. The intention of the Mayor and the Governor are plain. They even sent a letter to the owners of the New York Islanders who have arena problems, inviting the Islanders to solve their arena mess by leaving Brooklyn and becoming the reborn Hartford Whalers once the XL Center is renovated.

But is Hartford doing the right thing? Are they spending $250 for nothing? Why should this question be raised at all? Because of what is going on in Calgary.

Out west, the 19,000 seat Saddledome, one of the biggest arenas in the NHL is 34 years old, seven years younger than the XL Center. But the owners of the Calgary Flames have suddenly turned against the structure, claiming it is old and obsolete. What is being proposed is a combined NHL-CFL arena-stadium project called “Calgary Next”. This project is so controversial that nobody can give an accurate cost figure. The gung-ho builders claim it costs $890 million. The “realists” say the actual cost will be near $2 billion.

The pouty Flames ownership has thrown an “or else” tantrum if they do not get their way, threatening to leave Calgary for fairer pastures. And of course NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who loves new arenas, especially the new ones in Las Vegas, Detroit, and Edmonton, flew into Calgary earlier this year (on his new arena tour that included new arena pleas in Phoenix and Ottawa) urging the municipal Calgary government to accept “Calgary Next”.

The Flames ownership has never publicly stated what is specifically wrong with the 34 year old Saddledome. If they laid out their exact grievances, perhaps a much cheaper renovation could be done. But like all North American professional sports franchise owners in this day and age, they expect the local taxpayers to pay for a new facility to which they will contribute exactly 0 to build.

Well if a 34 year old arena with new renovations is unacceptable to a sports franchise owner and the NHL and its Commissioner, how is the NHL supposed to accept a renovated 41 year old XL Center? The NHL has not uttered one official comment about the proposed renovation of the XL Center. Clearly by their open letter to the New York Islanders owners, the Governor and the Mayor expect to get the Whalers back in return for spending $250 million.

But the city and the state should hold back. Much as I’d like to see a returned Hartford Whalers, and Gary Bettman said that the Whalers would be welcomed back in 2010 if they met his conditions about the fan base, the arena and a suitable owner, based on the situation in Calgary and elsewhere, there is no guarantee that the NHL will accept a renovated XL Center. The Hartford taxpayers could be spending $250 million for nothing.

When Jim Balsille tried to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, the city offered to spend $50 million to upgrade Copps Coliseum – in vain. And it has to be said that when Copps Coliseum was built during the 1980s, it was built with the specific intention of getting an NHL franchise. The people of Hamilton are still waiting.

It has been estimated that building a new arena in Hartford would cost in excess of $500 million. That’s double the cost of the offered $250 million. Quebec built its new Videotron arena for $375 million. If the cost of a new Hartford arena could be kept at that level, I would be 100% in favor of building a brand new arena. $500 million, double the cost of renovating the XL Center, makes me think twice.

Moreover I would also be thinking of the NFL as well. That league just recently stripped the city of St. Louis, which built a perfectly acceptable modern stadium, approximately a mere two decades ago of its franchise and shifted the Rams back to Los Angeles which finally caved in and built a suitable stadium, for the unspoken reason that Los Angeles is a bigger market where they can make more money. Then they told St. Louis to build another stadium. So much for fan loyalty, taxpayer money invested in a sports facility, local media investment, and local corporate investment. For added measure, they stripped San Diego and Oakland too.

What’s to stop another crybaby NHL owner, like the ones in Calgary for first accepting the Whalers and their renovated arena and then start complaining and threatening to leave because the arena, even though it has been upgraded, is 41 years old? If I’m a Connecticut taxpayer I would want a guarantee – in legal writing – from both the NHL and whoever wants to be the new Hartford owner that

a: Hartford is going to be guaranteed an NHL franchise by a specific date if the XL Center is renovated.

b: The new Whalers owner signs a legal document that the Whalers will be committed to Hartford for at least a fixed number of years before they can raise the issue of both a new arena and franchise shift.

The NHL made an unofficial commitment to Hartford in 2010 when Bettman made a tour of Hartford, Winnipeg, and Quebec and offered them terms for readmission. Winnipeg is already back, but Quebec, which built the Videotron that the NHL loves is stuck at the ownership factor. A returned Hartford with a proper arena and a suitable owner is a guaranteed money maker. The Whalers would renew their rivalry with Boston and other rivals in the New York area and the province of Quebec.

But unless the Mayor, Governor, and the taxpayers decide they want to build a new arena after all, they should pause and think this over before spending a single cent on renovating the XL Center. There are so many possible greedy and hidden pitfalls involved in this renovation that they may well be spending $250 million for nothing.

 

Some Cities Are Waking Up About New Arenas And Stadiums

The latest news from Calgary is that negotiations have broken off. These negotiations were about the controversial “Calgary Next” project, a combined NHL-CFL arena-stadium project or at least a single project that replaces the “old” Saddledome. It’s about time. Fans and their elected politicians should not be at the mercy of fickle and arrogant sports leagues that show no loyalty to their communities and expect new facilities every few decades.

Just what is wrong with the Calgary Saddledome? It is 34 years old and with over 19,000 seats, is one of the bigger NHL arenas. It has been renovated once. Suddenly the Calgary Flames ownership and management find it abhorrent. They of course do not want to pay for a new facility themselves and have issued a vague “or else” threat to the city if they do not get their way. (Are there secret negotiations with other cities without NHL hockey underway?)

Responsible representative municipal politicians have every reason to question the Flames and the NHL before plunging money into a possible bottomless pit, especially in this day and age. All they have to do is look at the actions of the even more high and mighty, arrogant NFL to fear the consequences. That wonderful league stripped St. Louis of the Cardinals but promised the city a new team if they would build a modern stadium. St. Louis complied and the NFL was happy to shift the Los Angeles Rams there when L.A. told the league to take a hike about building a new stadium.

Two decades later after Los Angeles finally decided to build a modern stadium, the NFL treacherously allowed the Rams to depart St. Louis because of the unstated reason that Los Angeles is a much bigger market where they can make more money. So much for the new modern stadium St. Louis built that is only a mere two decades old. Now the NFL wants them to build another one. The NFL could have expanded and started the process of becoming a 40 team league which would have hurt no one, but instead decided to unnecessarily hurt loyal fans and blackmail cities into spending billions on new facilities. To make the point plainer, they stripped San Diego and Oakland too. Based on the NFL which punishes cities and their taxpayers even if they comply with their wishes, if you were a Calgary municipal official, would you trust the NHL and the Flames?

The “Calgary Next” project is highly questionable. Costs range from under one billion to nearly to nearly two billion. If the costs cannot be accurate, there is no point even considering the project. Deceitful figures could cost taxpayers millions of dollars which could be spent better elsewhere. Taxpayers and their representatives have every right to delay and question things.

If this were the New York Islanders, a franchise that played in a facility that became obsolete, especially in seating capacity, and then moved to a facility that is even smaller with obstructed seats and bad ice, I would have some sympathy. But in Calgary there has been nothing specifically stated about what is wrong with the Saddledome. If the Flames would lay out what exactly is wrong, perhaps a much cheaper renovation could be attempted. But like spoiled brats they simply complain that the Saddledome is too old at 34 years old and then threaten to blackmail the city by leaving if they don’t get their way. If hockey was not so important to Calgary and its fans, I’d say, “See ya.”

Based on this logic, the 86 year old Empire State Building should have been torn down decades ago and a new one, taller than the Freedom Tower built. If sports franchise owners are this important, what about businessmen and home owners? Over 90% of all North American cities should be torn down and rebuilt at taxpayer expense because these people are “owed” it. But set a standard age date for a facility. 25 years, a quarter of a century and then tear it down. How about building me a new home? I deserve it.

What should be questioned is the whole concept of taxpayers paying for new facilities for rich sports franchise owners. Since when is a North American sports franchise owner “owed” a facility at public expense? Compared to most people, they’ve got too much already. But supporting a team is like a drug for most fans, as bad an addiction as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Under its spell, all logic is cast aside in an effort to be the top banana.

This problem is by no means confined to Calgary or even the NHL. Besides Calgary, here are a list of other current NHL related facility problems, excluding the legitimate New York Islander mess.

Quebec City, which wants the Nordiques back and complied with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s terms and built the Videotron, which the NHL loves, only to be thwarted by the ownership factor and have a bidder whom the NHL can’t abide.

Hartford, which also wants the Whalers back and is now willing to spend $250 million to update the XL Center. But if the NHL cannot abide the 34 year old Saddledome, how can they accept a 41 year old renovated building? There has been no comment by the NHL if this renovation will be acceptable. Hartford could be spending $250 million for nothing.

Hamilton, which was a front-running city for an NHL team in the 1980s and built Copps Coliseum in the anticipation of NHL expansion only to lose its potential franchise to Ottawa in a bungled bid. The city was prepared to spend $50 million to upgrade the arena if Jim Balsille managed to pry the Coyotes from Phoenix but the NHL opposed it and Buffalo and Toronto refused to set reasonable compensation terms. Thus the two best Canadian markets, Hamilton and Quebec City, sure money makers, remain without teams.

The possible end of the Phoenix Coyotes. Here at least, common sense may be taking over. Both the NHL and the suburb of Glendale have publicly said that they want to be rid of each other. An arena, specifically built for the Coyotes that is only 13 years old is now completely unsuitable. The NHL wants a new downtown Phoenix arena built. But the Arizona legislature and local taxpayers and their representatives are not going to have much sympathy for a franchise that is abandoning a 13 year old facility that was built specifically for them at taxpayer expense and has only iced a competitive team once in its entire history. Gary Bettman’s dream of a Phoenix team may come to an end.

Ottawa, which claims that its current arena is too far away to attract sellout crowds consistently. The Senators want a new downtown arena built. This may be the only new project that gets off the ground without much controversy.

Seattle, which was the front runner, along with Las Vegas and Quebec in the last NHL expansion. But nobody can decide who will build and where a new arena can be built. And if the potential NBA owner builds the arena, will it have the same problems that the New York Islanders found in the Barclay’s Center that was built specifically for basketball?

Kansas City, which built the Sprint Center to get both an NHL and NBA franchise. But nobody trusts the Kansas City market as being suitable for big league hockey. Kansas City has hosted some NHL preseason exhibition games which were either sellouts or half full depending on who was playing. And local investors did not like the NHL’s greedy $500 million expansion fee. So the Sprint Center remains empty without a professional hockey and basketball tenant.

Milwaukee and San Francisco which are currently building new arenas for the local NBA team. But both new facilities will be far under the current NHL seating medium of over 18,000 seats and since they are being built for a basketball team, they may have the same problems as the Barclay’s Center.

It’s time for some sober second judgment. Every hockey fan wants a local NHL team with a good facility but there has to be a return to common sense first. North American professional sports have become more and more unreal, catering only for rich fans. But when every taxpayer, rich and poor is on the hook for sports facility projects, the mindless worship for professional sports has to be set aside. There is too much money being wasted right now. Some cities are waking up to it. We’ll see what plays out.

 

Wasted Summer By The NHL

Well the new 2017-18 NHL season is about to dawn and the NHL gets revived after a school teacher two month vacation. In June there were exciting events; the crowning of the 2017 NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL Awards Banquet, the start of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights, and the NHL draft. After that flurry the NHL has taken what it considers a well deserved two month vacation.

Since July 1, the only news at the NHL website is which free agents signed with which teams, and a series of articles about the strength and weakness of every team for next season. The only significant news was that Dallas was chosen to be the site of next year’s NHL draft in honor of its 25th anniversary. Oh yes – the new Detroit arena opened.

Pardon me, but I think that is a poor result for a summer where so many important issues that can affect the NHL long term have gone unresolved. Sure everybody deserves a rest, but I was hoping that at least one major issue would be resolved before the new season started. All the significant issues that were shelved on July 1, are still present now with the start of this new season, and in some cases, with less time to solve them, some with potential dire consequences. Am I the only one who is being a sour, Scroogey, sore-head who thinks that this summer was wasted by the NHL which should have been working maybe even overtime to solve its problems and then putting its feet up for a well-earned rest?

I am not alone if you are a Quebec Nordiques fan and want to be finally taken out of the “suspended” state that the NHL placed Quebec in after the last bungled attempt at expansion. Resolving the Quebec situation would mean that Commissioner Bettman and the NHL finally found an acceptable owner instead of the pro-separatist Pierre Karl Peladeau who made inappropriate and unacceptable public remarks about Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. Instead one of the two best markets in Canada without an NHL team, one of the more valuable franchises in the NHL, only has a couple of Montreal Canadiens pre-season exhibition games to look forward to next season. Its beautiful new arena, the Videotron which the NHL loves is wasted and empty, a continuing scandal to a summer of nothing.

And as a sidelight, the granting of a new Quebec expansion franchise would allow the NHL to realign at last into a 32 team NFL structure which would allow the league to expand comfortably in the future to at least 40 and even 48 teams. Instead, thanks to the greedy terms of the bungled last attempt at expansion, the league only got the new Las Vegas team, leaving it at 31 teams, one short of the symmetrical 32 necessary for realignment.

The NHL should have been working its tail off this summer at devising some acceptable new expansion terms so that it could expand as soon as possible and resolve the alignment problem. The investment world found a $500 million expansion fee too excessive and backed away during the last expansion leaving only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec left, a humiliating embarrassment for the NHL. Now they have to either set an appropriate NHL expansion fee or wait indefinitely for investors to accept their current half a billion dollar terms. Expansion and realignment could be delayed for a long, long time.

And on the expansion front, Quebec’s brother franchise, Hartford, which also lost its team in the 1990s finally made some news last season by announcing a $250 million upgrade of the XL Center to a 19,000 seating capacity. So Whaler fans will also want to know the NHL’s opinion about this renovation, whether an upgraded 41 year old building will be suitable to get their team back and any expansion terms and fees that might occur along the way. But there has been no official announcement by the NHL on any of this, during the summer.

And when you mention Hartford now, you also draw in the New York Islanders because the Hartford mayor and the Connecticut governor sent the Islanders ownership a formal letter inviting them to become the new, relocated Hartford Whalers once the XL Center renovation is completed. The Islanders are having arena problems right now. The second-smallest NHL arena, the Barclay’s Center was built for basketball and has bad ice and obstructed view seats for hockey and the Islanders cannot sell it out. Because of the arena, the Islanders had the second worst attendance last year and if they don’t get good attendance they cannot afford to pay star players like John Tavares and build a competitive team.

The very existence of the Islanders depends on getting some kind of new arena, either by a move to Hartford or a new facility to be built in Queens. Time is running out and there have been no announcements about any positive developments this summer. This issue will heat up as the new season progresses. It is rumored that the Barclay Center itself wants the Islanders gone as soon as possible. The sooner this problem is solved the better, before an invisible gun is pointed at the NHL’s head.

And the NHL has a similar problem in its Western Conference, in Phoenix where both the NHL and the citizens of Glendale have publicly said they are finished with each other. Gary Bettman’s attempts to keep a team in Phoenix including the NHL owning the team and keeping it from falling into the lap of Hamilton via Jim Balsille may finally be over if a new arena in the downtown area is not built. But Phoenix and Arizona taxpayers are not going to be too eager to build a new arena for a franchise that is abandoning a facility that is only 13 years old and has only iced a competitive team once in its entire history. And in this summer of NHL nothing, there have been no announcements about a new arena or any move by the Coyotes to another city like Portland or Seattle.

And there have been no announcements about a new Seattle arena finally being built. Seattle, a “done deal”, a front-running city for an NHL franchise during the last horrible NHL expansion somehow bungled its bid like front-runners Houston and Hamilton did in expansions before them. The NHL was specifically courting Seattle because it was a western city that could balance up its conferences but the arena soap opera is going on with no end in sight. The NHL got their 31st team, Las Vegas, but not their 32nd team to balance things and realign.

Also on the arena front, there have been no announcements about the start of new arenas in Calgary and Ottawa. Bettman made a tour of these Canadian cites as well as Phoenix urging a resolution to these facility situations. There seems to be positive sentiment in Ottawa for a new downtown facility, but in Calgary, many politicians and citizens are questioning the terms and financial figures of the proposed “Calgary Next” project. And the Flames added fuel to the fire by threatening to walk out. There is nothing positive to announce in this summer of nothing in either city.

Nor is there anything positive to report internationally. The NHL pulled out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next year leaving many NHL players threatening to desert their teams and play for their country anyway. As if that was not enough, the South Koreans who have been down in the dregs of international hockey since it began, suddenly improved enough to be promoted to the top level of international play in next year’s World Championship. That could be awfully embarrassing for Bettman who has been trying to revive the World Cup and promote international hockey and for the NHL which has now snubbed a potential new market of 50 million people, if the South Koreans do anything significant in next year’s tournament. But no announcement during the summer of any change of heart has been made.

Likewise, there has been no announcement of any new developments to improve the quality of international hockey below the traditional “big 7″ country level. Vancouver and Los Angeles will play some exhibition games in low ranked, but big market China. And Boston and Los Angeles will host some clinics for the Chinese too. But there have been no formulated plans set out to raise the standard of play particularly in the dozen “B level” countries just below the “big 7″ so that a real expansion of international hockey and the revived World Cup can be made. Just the same old thing since 1972 when NHL professionals began playing in international tournaments.

All these issues plus others that were shelved during the summer are still there when the NHL comes back from vacation. Thwarted hopes for expansion and realignment, the fate of the Winter Olympics, unresolved arena issues, improvement of international hockey, are still now hotter than ever. Am I the only person who is a sourpuss because it seems to me that nothing was done on these issues? Will the NHL come to rue that some of these issues might have been solved or at least worked on during the past summer? Can these issues continue to be shelved forever?

 

Quebec, Hartford And Winnipeg Were ALWAYS Great NHL Franchises

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.

Quebec

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.

winnipeg

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.

whalers

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.

 

Las Vegas Admission Did Not Solve The NHL’s Expansion Problems

While everyone should be extending a warm welcome to the NHL’s newest franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights and wishing them well, let’s not forget that the admission of just Las Vegas represents a serious failure for the NHL. This is not the expansion that the NHL wanted. It is only the expansion the NHL could get.

Before the announcement of expansion last year, there was wild speculation about what would happen. There were newspaper stories and websites all over the Internet that even before expansion was formally announced, Las Vegas, Quebec City, second Toronto, and Seattle were “done deals”. Clearly the NHL expected to move beyond the symmetrical 32 team barrier to which the NFL is committed to and begin expanding to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.

This implies that not only was expansion on the table, but probably realignment into an NFL structure of 2 conferences with 4 divisions with 4 then 5 teams in each division. Realignment into an NFL structure not only makes things easier for the fans to understand, it also makes it easy to expand the league to 40 teams (5 to a division) and then to 48 teams (6 to a division).

Before the official announcement of the terms of the expansion, there were all kinds of rumors and expectations. Cities were said to be awaiting NHL expansion for years since the last one in 2000 when Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus were added. During that expansion there were 11 bids submitted including 3 from Houston (who somehow failed to land a team). It was expected to be the same this time.

In 2010, Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand and was probably committed to realignment and becoming a 40 team league. Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift from Atlanta but Bettman was confident that both Quebec and Hartford would seriously consider getting readmitted to the NHL. There was also frustrated Hamilton, fresh from its Phoenix Coyotes misadventure or the second Toronto “done deal”. There was Las Vegas and the other “done deal” Seattle whom the NHL had serious discussions with. There were the failed bidders of 2000, Houston and Oklahoma City. Kansas City had built the Sprint Center in hopes of getting a team. Portland, another hockey hotbed and perhaps the equally good Milwaukee might be induced to submit a bid. And there was the possibility of any surprise bids from other cities. So the NHL announced expansion in rosy expectation.

But the excessive terms, particularly the $500 million expansion fee ruined the NHL’s plans. The terms attracted more public denunciations from investors than bidders. 16 potential applicants were said to be interested, but only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec stayed to the end. Probably the NHL had wanted an expansion of 4 teams; Quebec and three western cities to made realignment possible, consummate their unofficial commitment to Quebec, and balance up the conferences.

To make matters worse, the Quebec bid was submitted by Pierre Karl Peladeau, who had made many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL loved the Quebec fan base and the new arena, the Videotron, but could not abide Peladeau, who made public racist statements about one of the NHL Board members, supports a Quebec separatist political party, and is just too untrustworthy to be admitted as an NHL partner. The Quebec bid has been “suspended” indefinitely until Gary Bettman can find a suitable franchise owner.

So the NHL only got Las Vegas in the end, probably the worst expansion in “big 4″ North American sports league history. This may be the only expansion where there was no competition by rival cities for a sports franchise. The NHL is still unbalanced, nor can it realign into an NFL structure. In the end, the Las Vegas expansion is only a baby step.

Still worse is that the Arizona Coyotes are now potentially without a home in the immediate future. A sensible solution would be to shift the team to Quebec but that will only unbalance the league further. And now Hartford, so long dormant has announced plans to upgrade the XL Center and made an open attempt to lure the New York Islanders who have arena problems of their own. The NHL wants Hartford back but does it want to lose the Islanders and their glorious history? And if Hartford is granted an expansion franchise instead, that only makes the conferences more unbalanced.

But the biggest problem is that the business and investor world has said that an NHL franchise currently is not worth a $500 million expansion fee. So what do Gary Bettman and the NHL Board do now? Refund some of the expansion fee money back to Bill Foley and Las Vegas and then announce a new expansion with a smaller admission fee, more in tune with the market value of an NHL franchise, or do they keep their $500 million fee, announce more expansion and wait in vain for bids that may never come?

 

At the awards banquet, Bettman claimed that the NHL is no longer interested in expansion. Obviously they have to revise their strategy. Both options could result in an embarrassing loss of face for the NHL. Refund money back to Bill Foley and set a cheaper expansion fee means a climb down. And holding to a $500 million expansion fee resulted in only two bids by fanatics with no competition between rival cities. That’s humiliating enough. What if expansion were announced and NOBODY bid?

But a 31 team NHL is no more suitable than a 30 team league and this holds true for both the NBA and MLB as well. All three leagues have to get to at least 32 teams and realign into an NFL structure for future development. And in the NHL’s case there is pressure on them to bring back both Quebec and Hartford and balance the conferences. For added spice, there is also the ugly Arizona Coyote situation that could mean a franchise shift.

The admission of Las Vegas is not the end of the NHL expansion but only a transitory phase, further complicated by the situations in Quebec, New York, and Phoenix. The dust has definitely not settled. The admission of Las Vegas is only the end of a bad expansion episode. The real drama has yet to occur.

 

Hartford Trying To Take Another Step Back To The NHL

As reported in January, Hartford is taking the first tangible steps to make a returned Whalers move from nostalgia and dreams back to having an NHL franchise again by proposing to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center by a $250 million renovation with seating increased to a more than adequate 19,000. When I heard about it, I wondered if it would not be better to build a brand new modern arena, provided the cost could kept at the Quebec Videotron level, of under $400 million. Costs for a new arena have been set as high as over $500 million but if Quebec can build a cheaper arena, why can’t Hartford?

Whatever, whether it is a new arena or a renovated old one, what is important is that a returned Hartford Whalers is no longer dormant but has the possibility of reality. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three NHL cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and outlined three reasonable conditions for returning to the league: Great fan-base (which all three cities have), a proper NHL-size arena, and acceptable ownership (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). The tour produced immediate results in Winnipeg and Quebec. Winnipeg is already back in the NHL and Quebec built the Videotron arena, but is stuck at the ownership factor.

But no response came from Hartford. The then mayor declared his support for a new arena and a returned Whalers as part of a large downtown reclamation project but no action occurred until last year’s proposal for a renovated XL Center.

Now Hartford has taken another tangible step to try and get back into the NHL, but not by expansion but relocation. The target is their closest neighbor, the New York Islanders, a franchise with known arena problems.

islanders

Currently the Islanders play in probably the worst arena in the NHL, the Barclay’s Center which has poor ice, the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL, and is the only NHL arena with obstructed seats for hockey. Their fans have shown how much they like the arena by giving the team the second worst attendance in the current season. The Islanders are under contract to play there for two more years but already there is talk of either moving back to their old, newly renovated home on Long Island or building a brand new, larger, modern arena in Queens.

Recently, the Governor of Connecticut and the Hartford mayor signed a letter addressed to the Islanders ownership and management proposing that the team be moved to Hartford when either renovations are completed or a new arena built. They point out that 3.1 million potential fans live within an hour’s drive of the arena and that the team would now be located much closer to its farm team in Bridgeport. And they project that a renovated arena would turn a $2.1 million annual profit.

There has been no response to the letter by the Islanders. The only talk is about being committed to the Barclay’s Center for the immediate future, and the possibility of the Queens arena being built.

From the NHL’s viewpoint, there are three advantages to shifting the Islanders to Hartford. First it honors Bettman’s 2010 promise of bringing back the three lost franchises if they meet his conditions. The second is that the Islanders move out of a bad arena into a better one. The third is that by relocating instead of expanding, the NHL would only have to add one more western expansion team to balance up the conferences and realign into an NFL type structure. And a returned Hartford would be able to renew its rivalries with the New York area teams, the Rangers and Devils, any Quebec based teams, plus possibly Buffalo, Ottawa, and Toronto and above all the Boston Bruins.

The difficulty with shifting the Islanders to Hartford is their heritage and history. Does the NHL want the only American NHL franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, a feat only accomplished twice before by Montreal, and the American expansion franchise currently tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for most Stanley Cup victories by an expansion team since 1967 to disappear? Losing a 45 year old franchise with such a glorious history like the Islanders would be damaging to the league’s image and prestige. It was one thing to shift inglorious, unwanted, Atlanta to Winnipeg. It would be much tougher for the Islanders to leave.

Probably the NHL secretly would prefer the Queens arena proposal and hope everything works out. It is doubtful that the Islanders will remain in the Barclay’s Center when their contract expires. But perhaps the governor and mayor have targeted the wrong Eastern Conference franchise. It would be much easier shifting inglorious Florida or Columbus, two other teams with serious attendance problems.

Also with Bettman making proposals to bring back the three lost franchises plus expanding to Las Vegas, it shows that the NHL is willing to expand past the symmetrical 32 team barrier to the next symmetrical number of 40 (2 conferences with 4 divisions each, with 5 teams to a division). And offering Hartford an expansion team instead allows the league to collect another $500 million expansion fee.

But whether if by arena renovation, or new construction, expansion or relocation, the important thing is that the Hartford Whalers are now being talked about as becoming a reality again, instead of memories and nostalgia. The important thing is that significant public officials as well as their old fans want the Whalers back. Perhaps the next tangible step will be when a suitable rich investor who believes in a returned Hartford Whalers steps forward to make that dream come true.

Hartford Should Go All The Way

It might finally happen. The first tangible steps to getting the Hartford Whalers back in the NHL. In December, there was a proposal to renovate the 41 year old XL center to a more than adequate NHL 19,000 seats which would cost $250 million.

Is this really worth it? The two initial questions to be asked are would Hartford get back in the NHL and should Hartford build a new arena instead.

With a proper arena, Hartford would have no problem getting back in the NHL BUT they have to have a credible owner lined up. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg and offered them reasonable terms to get back into the NHL: a credible owner, a proper arena, and a great fan base.

Winnipeg came back by buying the unwanted Atlanta Thrasher franchise and Quebec built a new arena and is now knocking at the door. (Quebec’s problem is that the potential bidder made inappropriate racist remarks about a member of the NHL Board and the league finds him unsuitable. Gary Bettman may be currently looking for a new owner behind the scenes.) The door remains open for Hartford as well. There is no problem with a fan base and market. Hartford shares the entire New England market with Boston including the large city of Providence. Hartford also has great rivalries with the Boston Bruins, Montreal, a returned Quebec, the New York City area teams and possibly with Buffalo and Ottawa as well.

The key question is about cost and what you are getting. Are you willing to spend $250 million on a facility for minor league teams? $250 million sounds like major league money so if it is the NHL you really want, you had better start solving the ownership problem right now. And the main deterrent to that solution is that Gary Bettman and the NHL dumped an unexpected $500 million entry fee on potential bidders that scared off 14 applicants leaving only fanatical Quebec and Las Vegas left. Obviously most of the business world considers a $500 million fee to be too excessive for an NHL franchise. Whoever wants to own a returned Whalers had better be exceedingly rich and believe in the team and the market.

Furthermore, city officials and Hartford businesses see the renovation as a means of reviving business and the downtown core. How much are minor league teams going to draw fans downtown? If the future of the city is tied up with this renovation which seems to be implied, it is major league hockey that is required so it is imperative to get the ownership issue solved and in place before any construction is started or else you will have a mess like Quebec currently has.

Hartford

That brings up the next issue, renovation or new arena. It has been estimated that it would cost about $500 million for a new Hartford arena but is this true? Unfortunately greed, corruption and unexpected factors play too great a part in the construction of new stadiums and arenas. Edmonton’s new arena cost $480 million; the new Las Vegas arena is $375 million and the Videotron in Quebec cost $370 million, a variation of over $110 million.

And renovation is the same way. To put matters in perspective, when Jim Balsille tried to buy the Arizona Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, the Hamilton city council planned to vote $50 million to raise an NHL acceptable 17,000 seat arena to a more than adequate 18,500 facility. Why does it cost 5 times as much to renovate the XL Center than it does to upgrade an arena in Hamilton? Why is the cost of a new Hartford arena $130 million more than a similar arena in Quebec? Before any plan is approved, responsible Hartford public officials had better get answers.

There is one final major question, who do you want it for. Building a new arena automatically puts Hartford not only in line for an NHL team but an NBA basketball team as well. Do you want both major league hockey and basketball? Having two tenants to share the cost and draw fans to the downtown area might make a big difference than just one team.

So what route should Hartford go? If the cost of a new arena can be kept at the level of Quebec and Las Vegas or cheaper, I would vote to spend an additional $120 million on a completely new building which will be more attractive in drawing fans and hopefully last longer than the XL Center. Compared to Hamilton, the cost of renovating a 41 year old building is ridiculous but it is better than nothing. And go for both the NHL and NBA, not minor league teams. Get the ownership and arena issues solved and Hartford will have at least the Whalers back soon. The NHL wants them.

WAIL FOR THE LOST WHALERS

During the period when future NHL expansion was rumored and then became a reality, many cities were expected to be active bidders to get a new NHL team (until the obscene $500 million entry fee and $10 million “consideration” fee were announced). Quebec, Las Vegas, Toronto, and Seattle were up front but there was speculation that cities like Houston, Hamilton, Milwaukee, and Portland might make bids. But one city was seldom mentioned, a city whom NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman specifically visited and invited to make a bid, ex-NHL member, Hartford, Connecticut.

In 2010, Bettman made a tour of the three cities which lost their franchises in the 1990s, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford and stated the terms for readmission: adequate fan-base, good ownership, and a proper NHL arena. None of these terms were unreasonable. Each was a crucial factor that ensured long-term membership and stability.

So far Winnipeg has got its team back and Quebec which has built a new arena and has secured acceptable ownership can almost taste its returned Nordiques. But sadly, a returned Hartford Whalers is nowhere in sight.

It would not be so bad if Hartford did not bid for a team this time. The NHL’s excessive entry fee made even the most die-hard Nordiques and Vegas fan pause, wince and say, “wait until later”. But what is truly distressing about Hartford is that a returned Whalers is not even on the horizon.

Like Quebec and Winnipeg, there is no problem with an adequate fan-base, but a solution to the other two conditions, the two main reasons why Hartford lost the Whalers, a proper arena and good ownership, is a million miles away.

Quebec ought to have provided a blueprint for getting the Whalers back. The Nordiques fans were smart enough to turn the arena and franchise issues into political issues when 80,000 of them signed a petition urging the Nordiques to be returned in a proper NHL arena. This issue became a way to get votes at both the provincial and municipal levels of government and eventually Quebec’s new arena would be financed by provincial and municipal taxes. The petition also caught the attention of media giant Quebecor, which wanted to project a greater presence for itself in the province by buying and owning the NHL Montreal Canadiens. When that failed, Quebecor switched goals and announced it would pursue a returned Nordiques in a new arena instead. All the missing pieces for a returned Nordiques were now in place for Quebec.

When Bettman made his tour in 2010, his terms were received enthusiastically in all three cities. Hartford’s then mayor, like Quebec’s was in favor of using municipal money to finance a new arena as part of a downtown reclamation project. But whereas key activity was provoked in Quebec, nothing of substance has occurred in Hartford.

When NHL expansion began to catch fire last year, it was reported that Quebec, Seattle, Toronto, and Las Vegas were “done deals” for admission in 2017. There was no mention of Hartford, not a word about rich people seeking to bring back the Whalers and resolve the arena problem. All that exists are Internet stories about Whaler memories, fan reunions, and vows about not letting the Whaler legacy die. But nothing serious about a new arena and an owner.

Would a returned Whalers work? If a returned Nordiques with a proper arena and good ownership is a sure-fire winner in the Province of Quebec, then a returned Whalers with a larger market of half of New England including much of the city of Providence will be just as successful. Hartford/New England like Quebec was a mainstay of the old WHA and when the Whalers joined the NHL they carried on their rivalry with the Nordiques and established great new ones with Montreal, the New York area teams and especially with their arch New England rivals, the Boston Bruins. A revived Bruin-Whaler rivalry would be just as potent as the projected resurrection of Canadiens-Nordiques.

Hartford with a proper arena and good ownership is a no-brain choice for an expanded NHL. If Quebec and Winnipeg can get back into the NHL then so can Hartford. Gary Bettman and the NHL have left the door open. It is up to Whaler fans, Hartford and Connecticut politicians, and potential New England owners to make it happen.