All Hartford Needs Is A Suitable Owner And They Are Back In The NHL

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.

 

Forget The Legal Technicalities: SEATTLE Has An NHL TEAM!

Officially all the NHL is doing is allowing a Seattle ownership group to make an ownership bid to which they will make the usual standard investigations about how appropriate it is, subject to league approval. Forget about them, they are just a formality. Seattle now has an NHL team, exactly a century after they became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup. It’s over; unless something incredible happens, the NHL is not going to refund $650 million back to Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman. Seattle will begin play in the 2020-21 season.

The NHL had been eying Seattle for the past several years. Seattle is an obvious NHL expansion city, one of the better ones (I had it listed in my group of top 10 cities for NHL expansion), with deep roots in hockey in Canada, competing for the Stanley Cup in even its pre-NHL period and for decades in the CHL, competing for Canada’s top junior trophy, the Memorial Cup. In fact the only surprise is why it took 100 years to join the NHL. And if Las Vegas with its doubtful market is proving to be an overwhelming success because of excellent ownership, the same conditions should make the new Seattle team an undoubted, sure winner.

The new Seattle team will play in a $600 million renovated, Key Arena, a sports facility that opened in 1962 and is therefore 55 years old (more on the repercussions of this decision later). Aping Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley, Bruckheimer and Bonderman will conduct their own preliminary season ticket drive to see who will put their money where their mouths are.

Perhaps even more important than Seattle’s admission to the NHL is its repercussions for the future. The news of Seattle joining the NHL has direct repercussions on Phoenix, Vancouver, Hartford, Calgary, NHL realignment, renovated arenas, the NBA, and future NHL expansion. All these topics probably need full, fleshed-out articles, but I’ll go over them briefly now.

Vancouver

This is the easiest one to document. Edmonton and Calgary were always each other’s best rivals with Vancouver their number two choice. Vancouver will now have its own best NHL rival all to itself, joining the Seattle Sounders-Vancouver Whitecaps MLS rivalry. Seattle will also have rivalries with Edmonton, Calgary, all the California teams, and possibly Las Vegas.

Phoenix

With the current troubles about where the Arizona Coyotes will play in the future, there were rumors that Seattle and Portland were cities that the current Coyote ownership was negotiating with for possible relocation. The granting of an NHL franchise to Seattle obviously rules out the Coyotes moving there. Baring a miracle about building a new downtown Phoenix arena, funded by taxpayers, where will the Coyotes play? Houston, Portland, Quebec, and Hartford are still in the running.

The NBA

Originally it was supposed to be a new NBA franchise owner of a returned Supersonics building a brand new arena with an NHL expansion team as a tenant. But now the NHL has beaten the NBA to the punch. Where does this leave a returned Supersonics?

Calgary, Hartford And Renovated Arenas

As noted above, by virtually granting a team to Seattle, the NHL is saying that they approve the renovation of an old, 55 year old arena. Yet at the same time, the NHL is telling the Calgary Flames ownership to play hardball with Calgary taxpayers and city officials about building a new arena to succeed the 34 year old Saddledome, one of the NHL’s better arenas with over 19,000 seats (see below about the Seattle renovation). Just what is wrong with the Calgary Saddledome? The Flames ownership won’t say since they want a new arena that they don’t have to pay for. But surely a cheaper renovation of the existing building is much better for taxpayers and city officials than building a costly, perhaps unnecessary new arena. If the NHL is going to a accept a renovated arena in Seattle, how can they turn down a cheaper Calgary renovation?

For Hartford, the admission of Seattle in a renovated old arena should mean that the NHL will also approve the $250 million renovation Hartford and Connecticut plan to spend to get the Whalers back. The XL Center is only 41 years old so if the NHL can accept the Key Arena, they should also accept the XL Center. The new renovation will give the XL Center over 19,000 seats (again see below about the Seattle renovation).

More importantly, if this proposed Seattle renovation is done, the renovated Key Arena’s seating capacity will make it the third smallest arena in the NHL (2nd smallest if the New York Islanders get a new arena), ahead of only Winnipeg and New York. For the money they plan to spend ($600 million), would it not be better to tear down the Key Arena and build a brand new one with enlarged seating instead?

NHL Realignment

Probably this is only a temporary stopping point in NHL expansion (The NHL has an unofficial commitment to return both Quebec and Hartford to the league plus they want an NHL team in Houston). Probably they want to expand to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams. But by expanding to 32 teams in balanced conferences, the NHL now has the opportunity to realign into an NFL structure of 2 Conferences, each with 4 divisions of 4 teams each. Once the Seattle franchise is formally approved, expect the NHL to follow it up with an announcement of realignment. Whether there will be other new expansion teams added before this announcement is made remains to be seen.

Future NHL Expansion

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his NHL owners have more than the obvious reason to welcome Seattle into the NHL and probably this is the most important one. The last NHL expansion to Las Vegas was a bust. Probably what the NHL wanted was an expansion of four teams, Quebec and three western cities so the NHL could not only expand but realign as well. Before the expansion was even announced, the press and the Internet were saying that there were four “done deals” already; Quebec, Las Vegas, second Toronto, and Seattle. But of 16 possible bids, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec City continued on to the end (The Quebec bid was “suspended” by the NHL probably because the NHL does not like the potential owner who made racist statements about an NHL Board owner, is an active pro-separatist of Quebec independence, and is generally untrustworthy), probably because the investment world would not accept a $500 million expansion fee. It was a humiliating failure, probably the first time a “big 4″ league expansion had no competition between rival cities. I even speculated that the NHL would have to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner Bill Foley, and then set a lower expansion fee that the investment world could accept if the league wanted to expand in the future.

But the breach in the wall by Bruckheimer and Bonderman means that Gary Bettman’s brazen gamble paid off. Not only did they accept a $500 million expansion fee, they upped it to $650 million. Bettman has every reason to kiss their rumps. He and his NHL Board are not going to turn down Seattle now, even if the proposed season ticket drive doesn’t get a single client and the new renovated arena is the second smallest in the NHL. Now the investment world will have to accept a higher NHL expansion fee even when the value of any NHL team is not listed in the top 20 sports franchises in North America. Right behind Bettman, the commissioners of the NBA, MLB, and the NFL have lined up to bestow hugs and kisses on Bruckheimer and Bonderman. If the fourth ranked NHL can get expansion fees like this, imagine what their leagues can get when they announce expansion. MLB has already projected Montreal and Portland as its next teams and a realignment into a brand new structure with 32 teams. The NBA also wants to realign once it gets to 32 teams.

So Seattle is in and don’t think this is the end of NHL expansion. Houston, Quebec, and Hartford are waiting and there are probably more potential teams sitting on the fence. A 40 team NHL, here we come.