Though Not Stated, The NHL Is Bursting At The Seams For An Expansion To 40 Teams Within Two Decades

After the failure of the last NHL expansion, probably due to the refusal of the investment world to accept a $500 million expansion fee, Commissioner Gary Bettman publicly stated that the NHL is not pursuing expansion at the present time. But right now he has got potential expansion proposals crawling out of the woodwork. Seattle is almost certain to become the 32nd NHL team which finally balances the conferences and makes realignment possible, and at least 3 almost certain expansion/relocation cities, Quebec City, Houston, and Hartford have expressed active interest in getting an NHL franchise. (I’ll deal with these individually later.)

As mentioned many times in other articles, as early as 2010 when Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission (fan base, proper arena, suitable ownership), the NHL was prepared to dramatically expand the league. At the time, the NHL had 30 teams, so their offer to readmit 3 cities meant that the NHL would have 33 teams, one more than the current 32 NFL limit. This amount of expansion implied that the NHL would also realign, probably into an NFL structure, though with 5 teams in each of the new 8 divisions, to the next symmetrical number of 40.

Unfortunately, an ownership crisis developed in Atlanta and Winnipeg had to be used to resolve the problem. Actually the NHL wanted an expansion team in Winnipeg, not a relocated Atlanta Thrashers. There is a similar problem today in Phoenix and a potential expansion city will probably have to be used to relocate the Coyotes. With the admission of Seattle, the problem of balancing the conferences is at last solved. It is easy to predict future NHL expansion: There will be four new eastern and four new western teams added (though there is the possibility of Nashville being shifted east) until the 40 team mark is reached.

Commissioner Bettman could not be more delighted at the way things are turning out for him; even his new Seattle investors have upped his expansion fee to $650 million. But at least one city is going to get a bargain-basement relocated team at less price and there are still lots of issues to be resolved.

1. There are lots of rumors about an arena crisis in Calgary. Actually it is about a pouty Flames ownership that wants its cake and eat it too. They want a new arena built (at taxpayer expense, not themselves paying for it) simply because the Saddledome is over 3 decades old. But the Saddledome is actually one of the larger (over 19,000 seats) and better arenas in the NHL. Just what is wrong with it, the Flames ownership won’t say. If they laid out what is inadequate, probably a cheaper renovation could be negotiated. Meanwhile the Flames ownership makes relocation threats, knowing full well that the Saddledome could probably carry them for at least another decade without any problems. Nobody wants to tear down the 86 year old Empire State Building. By accepting Seattle with its renovated 55 year old arena, how can the NHL refuse a cheaper offer of renovating the 34 year old Saddledome instead of building a costly and maybe unnecessary new arena? The only true NHL arena problem is in Phoenix.

2. The only thing stopping Quebec from getting a team is the ownership factor. The local Quebec market is now over 800,000 and the entire market stretching west half way to Montreal and also including all eastern Quebec, plus the 4 Maritime provinces is several million. The NHL also loves the new Videotron arena and gave it its blessing by awarding a World Cup exhibition game and allowing the Montreal Canadiens to play preseason games there. So the only objectionable factor is the owner. Pierre Karl Peladeau has made many enemies on the NHL Board by his public racist comments about Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, his support of the Quebec separatist political party, and his general untrustworthiness. At the recent Centennial meetings in Montreal, Molson was seen publicly with Gary Bettman many times but Peladeau was as usual nowhere in sight. A suitable ownership bid from Quebec City means that the Nordiques return to the NHL tomorrow. Quebec is a prime candidate for the relocated Coyotes and it would not be surprising if the Coyotes come at the same time as two more western expansion cities (one probably Houston) get added to the league.

3. Since the NHL is ready to accept an old renovated arena in Seattle (55 years old) instead of a new arena, there should be no objections to Hartford renovating the XL Center which is 41 years old. The Seattle project at least is highly dubious because it will produce an arena that will make it the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL. For the money that they are planning to spend, it would be better if Seattle built a new, modern arena instead. The Hartford renovation must increase the seating capacity of the XL Center.

4. Bettman could not be more delighted that the Houston Rockets of the NBA were sold and now the market has a friendly arena owner in Tilman Fertitta. The NHL has long wanted Houston in the league to be a rival for Dallas and has regretted turning down the bungled attempt by the WHA Aeros in the 1970s to get in. Houston is the largest American city without NHL hockey and it is only a matter of time now, like Seattle, before it gets its franchise. Probably Bettman is only waiting for the token Seattle approval process to conclude before making a formal Houston expansion announcement. Given Bettman’s new policy of negotiating NHL expansion secretly instead of the traditional way of announcing a competition for expansion that failed so miserably last time when the NHL could only get Las Vegas, it might not be inaccurate to conclude that Houston has already been secretly accepted, a “done deal” like the ones that were being proclaimed on the Internet and in the press before the last expansion was announced.

5. The happiest development for Bettman is what the new Seattle expansion means. During the last disastrous Las Vegas expansion, the investment world told him and his $500 million expansion fee to take a hike. But the breach in the wall by Seattle gives Bettman the last laugh. He can now expand the NHL to 40 teams and who knows what the final expansion fee for the 40th team might be? Thanks to Seattle, he and the NHL are getting their cake and eating it too.

What are my predictions? The NHL is on its way to becoming a 40 team league within the next two decades in a realigned NFL structure, the only difference being that each division will have 5 teams instead of 4. There will be a few stopping points along the way. Right now I think this initial phase of expansion will temporarily halt at 34 teams before resuming once the new franchises get settled and consolidated. That means that Houston, if they find a suitable owner will be the next NHL team, and Quebec City, keeping the existing Arizona ownership which means Pierre Karl Peladeau is finally out of the picture, will get the Coyotes. Since the NHL wants to keep 2 balanced conferences, the only mystery is what other western American city will be Houston’s expansion partner. My guess is it will be one of Portland, San Diego, Oklahoma City or Kansas City. And our behind-the-scenes man, Bettman has already been negotiating with at least one of them, waiting to proclaim their chance, along with Houston to apply for an NHL franchise once the token Seattle approval process is finished.

Then after a few years the NHL will accept Hartford’s renovated arena and be forced to grit its teeth and tell the Calgary Flames to make some terms about a Saddledome renovation. By then other cities will be even more hungry for an NHL team. In Canada, once the Quebec City situation is cleared up, the next city will be second southern Ontario (probably Hamilton) or second Montreal. Whoever are the three western American city losers will be even more ripe for the taking. Milwaukee and San Francisco are building new arenas but they may be too small and too basketball friendly for the NHL’s liking. Saskatoon and Spokane are long term possibilities.

And NHL expansion will have repercussions outside of the league. MLB, envious and admiring at what the NHL doing, can’t wait to make Montreal and Portland its next expansion cities. And the NBA, also wanting to reach at least 32 teams and realign won’t be long following the other two leagues. For them, Seattle is the obvious western choice but they have to like what they are seeing in NHL Las Vegas. Perhaps a four team NBA expansion is on the horizon.

There may be other surprise bidders for an NHL team, right now unforseen. The only thing for certain is that a 40 team NHL within two decades is on the table. The questions to be settled are who, where, when, how much, and in what order.


Sad NHL Celebratory Centennial Meeting In Montreal

The climax of the NHL’s centenary celebrations this year has started to occur. This year the NHL scheduled its general managers’ meeting in historical Montreal, almost 100 years to the day when the NHL was founded in the Windsor Hotel. You could not accuse NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman of being an ignorant American on the subject of the founding of an exclusive Canadian hockey league in 1917. It was clear from every article on the NHL news section on their website that he was very articulate and knowledgeable about what happened a century ago. He would say all the important and appropriate right things about the historical event and the importance of Montreal in the founding of the league.

What made the occasion sad was that several important relevant NHL topics were brought up at various press conferences and Bettman could not or dared not tell the truth publicly. Instead he was forced to talk as honestly as he could in the usual political/bureaucratic jargon that officials and politicians use in public – vague, hopeful generalities that get politicians and officials off the hook, that paste things over and settle nothing. Let’s go over them and read between the lines.

The first topic was NHL expansion and realignment. Bettman quite rightly stressed the importance of the NHL consolidating and absorbing its newest franchise, Las Vegas. But his bureaucratic jargon statement was that NHL was not going to merely expand for the sake of achieving symmetry – ie. to reach at least 32 teams so that the league could realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, each with 4 divisions of 4 teams, which would make things easier for the fans to understand and allow the league to expand to 40, even 48 teams.

What he didn’t dare say was that the NHL wanted to reach a symmetrical number of teams during the last expansion and failed, probably because the $500 million expansion fee scared away investors and now he’s got a major problem for future expansion. Either he finds a way to persuade rich investors to accept a $500 million expansion fee for an NHL franchise or he finds a face-saving way to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley, and then sets a new lower expansion fee that investors can accept. Of course none of that was mentioned.

The next topic was NHL expansion to Houston. Tilman Fertitta, owner of the NBA Houston Rockets has publicly stated on his Twitter account that he would like to have an NHL franchise in Houston. Bettman in response uttered the usual generalities that the NHL is delighted in knowing that some investors have an interest in the league and that they are ready to listen to anybody if they can make a new franchise feasible (especially if they have got a spare $500 million around).

What he didn’t say was that the NHL would be overjoyed if Houston joined the league as soon as possible. Houston would be a perfect city to round out the NHL to 32 teams. It is the largest American market without an NHL team. It is the perfect rival for the Dallas Stars. It is located in the right time zone/area to make realignment and balancing the conferences possible. Bettman also did not mention if Fertitta would accept a $500 million expansion fee. But Bettman and the NHL want Houston in the league as fast as possible.

Then came the subject of Quebec City returning to the NHL. Bettman simply repeated the usual previous public statements, that he told before, that he had warned Quebec City officials and politicians that they could keep building their arena but not to expect a team – and not to rule out the possibility of a team coming back to Quebec.

What he didn’t say was that the NHL would love to have Quebec City and its market, now grown to 800,000+ back in the league. That the league loves the new Videotron arena as evidenced by awarding Quebec City a World Cup exhibition game and allowing the Montreal Canadiens to play preseason games there every year. That Bettman had met with officials like the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec provincial premier and urged them to keep building the arena. And most pertinently, that the real reason that the NHL has put the Quebec City bid in “suspension” is because they cannot accept the unsuitable bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau, owner of Quebecor.

At most press conferences, Bettman was accompanied by Montreal Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson, the NHL Board member whom Peladeau publicly insulted with inappropriate racial remarks after he lost his attempt to buy the Canadiens himself. Peladeau’s name was never mentioned at any press conference. Nor was Peladeau present at any public meetings which Bettman attended, a usual occurrence. Sadly, Bettman dropped no hints about any behind the scenes attempts to find a suitable Quebec City owner instead of Peladeau, or if any progress had been made in that direction.

The final interesting topic raised by both Bettman and Molson was about the failure to host an NHL outdoor game in Montreal. And what they didn’t say was that they were waiting for Major League Baseball to announce expansion and bring back the Montreal Expos in an appropriate new baseball stadium. It is well known that Montreal is the leading city for a new MLB expansion franchise and that there is already a group of local businessmen ready to submit a bid and deal with a new stadium issue when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has publicly favored a returned Expos himself, officially announces expansion. It would seem that a returned Expos is a foregone conclusion in the near future and that the NHL is only waiting for that happy event to occur so that they can play outdoor games in Montreal.

And so concludes this article about the NHL’s latest official statements about what is going on with their league. The Commissioner said a lot of relevant, appropriate, and important things in public, but what he didn’t say was much more meaningful.