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.

 

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As Predicted: The Carolina Hurricanes Aren’t Coming To Quebec City Or Hartford

The sale of the Carolina Hurricanes by Peter Karmanos to Tom Dundon means that at least for a while, the Hurricanes won’t be coming to either Quebec City or Hartford. Despite rumors that have arisen over the past few years, this writer at least has been steadfast in believing that the Hurricanes will stay in North Carolina despite the noticeable drop in attendance.

The main reason for the drop is not that hockey has become unpopular in North Carolina but because Carolina hasn’t iced a competitive team for almost a decade. During Karmanos’s last years, the Hurricanes declined from the peak of winning the Stanley Cup in 2002. The last sparkle was the Hurricanes getting to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009. Since then the Hurricanes could usually be found among the lower ranks of the Eastern Conference. No wonder attendance dropped off.

But if Dundon shows the same kind of competence that Bill Foley is showing in Las Vegas, there is no reason to believe that the fans won’t come back. Like the New York Islanders, who have struggled with attendance and arena problems since their peak years in the early 1980s, winning the Stanley Cup can go a long way to get a franchise to survive during tough times. The memory of winning seasons, can cause ex-attendee fans to remember back to the glory years and long for a champion again. Winning the Stanley Cup even once starts a championship tradition.

Certainly NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman believes in the power of a Stanley Cup victory. He was in attendance when Dundon was introduced, an open signal that he still believes in the Carolina market. Such optimism is completely missing in his two remaining trouble spots, Florida and especially Phoenix where no Stanley Cup banners hang in the local arena. A huge reason for the unpopularity of the Coyotes in Arizona is that they have only iced a competitive team once in their entire history. That’s not true in Carolina. The real danger sign that would threaten the franchise is if the Hurricanes start icing playoff teams again and the fans still don’t return.

Dundon is in a good situation to take over. The Hurricanes are starting to be competitive again. Currently, they have at least a 50% chance of making the playoffs this year and for sure baring injury, of at least being competitive for the last playoff positions. What they really need in this market are star players who are box office draws. The Hurricanes are mostly no-names. Even if they miss the playoffs again this year, a good draft in Dallas and some astute trades could capture the imagination of hockey fans in Raleigh again.

As for Quebec and Hartford, despite the rumors over the past few years, they should now consider getting the Hurricanes to relocate to be a closed book, at least for now. What Hartford should be doing is trying to find a suitable investor like Foley and Dundon to front a Hartford bid for an NHL expansion franchise and coming to a final settlement about the Hartford arena problem. Both the mayor and the governor of Connecticut want the Whalers back as a key to reviving Hartford as a vibrant city. Hartford with a proper NHL arena and a suitable owner would be a winner, a sure money maker.

For Quebec, losing the Hurricanes relocation option simply narrows down the choices to get its beloved Nordiques back. Before proceeding any further, Quebec City fans should take note of this Dundon/Hurricanes press conference as another signal of the real reason why they don’t have the Nordiques back. Note that Commissioner Bettman was there in person, in whole-hearted support of Tom Dundon. Since when has he ever been seen in the company of the openly racist Pierre Karl Peladeau? The NHL loves the Quebec market and its brand new Videotron arena but wants nothing to do with the pro-separatist, would-be Nordiques owner Peladeau, who made inappropriate racist remarks about Montreal Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson, and has built up a stack of enemies on the NHL Board of Governors.

I’ve advanced the idea in other articles on this blog that Quebec’s best chance of getting the Nordiques back quickly would be if the NHL accepts the current Seattle bid, then adds two other Western Conference expansion teams, and then shifts the Arizona Coyotes to Quebec. This kills two birds with one stone. With the horrible team, the Coyotes are currently icing, there is no way they are going to get public money for building a new downtown Phoenix arena. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns want nothing to do with the Coyotes about building a new facility. Shifting the Coyotes out of Phoenix where they have no future to Quebec gets the NHL out of a hostile market and at the same time gets the unsuitable Peladeau out of the picture.

In support of this theory, the Seattle bid could not be more welcome for Quebec. So is the news that Houston wants to actively pursue getting an NHL franchise. It only remains to find a third western city that wants an NHL team. Unless some suitable French Canadian bidder who has been hiding in the shadows appears, at least for now, that is probably the best way the Nordiques will return to Quebec. But Carolina is now a dead issue. Hartford and Quebec have to look elsewhere.

 

What’s In Store For Hockey In 2018?

In my last article, I listed 20 significant events for hockey that occurred in 2017. There could be some significant events for 2018 that will affect the NHL and international hockey long term. Here are some that will happen for sure or maybe happen.

1.    Approve New Seattle NHL Franchise As Soon As Possible

This is a no-brainer, a for-sure event. Unless something absolutely catastrophic happens, the NHL is not going to refund $650 million to Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman. The NHL has been actively wanting Seattle for over half a decade and now with the renovation of the Key Arena and the appearance of Bruckheimer and Bonderman, it has finally come to pass. The faster this token “approval process” is over, the better for the NHL. Nothing is completely certain but for this to happen in 2018, my Predictability Rating is 99.9%.

2.     The NHL Realigns Into An NFL Structure

This will depend on how fast the NHL approves the Seattle bid. The way the unwieldy conference structure is right now is interesting but confusing for the fans and everybody else. Realigning into the easy to understand NFL structure of 2 Conferences, each with 4 Divisions of 4 teams with a revised playoff structure makes things easier for everybody to follow. To get to 32 teams for minimum realignment was one of the main reasons the NHL accepted an almost for sure Seattle bid. It also makes it easier to keep expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). As I’ve said in too many articles to count, there are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada (and growing all the time) so the NHL, the NBA, MLB, and the NFL are only a fraction of the size they could be. There are only two questions concerning NHL Realignment. First, will they announce it in 2018 which depends on how fast they officially approve Seattle? Second, since the NHL seems intent on becoming a 40 team league, will any other expansion cities be on board before they officially announce it? Predictability Rating: 80%.

3.     Houston Is Granted An NHL Franchise

This too is probably a “done deal” and again it depends on how fast the NHL approves Seattle. They will probably want to officially approve Seattle first before moving on to new expansion issues. The NHL is not in any hurry to get Houston in the league though it is an almost for-sure action, but they might be a bit anxious to get their hands on more expansion money which will be at least as much as Seattle if not higher. Predictability Rating: 60%.

4.     An Active Hartford Expansion Bidder Will Appear

Hartford has approved a $250 million expansion/renovation of its XL Arena to 19,000 seats. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them three terms for readmission to the NHL (Great fan base [no problem for all three cities]; A proper NHL arena; Acceptable ownership). Winnipeg was used to solve the Atlanta crisis and Quebec has been actively knocking at the door (see its situation listed below). Most likely the NHL will accept Hartford’s arena renovation plans just like they will approve Seattle’s renovation. So that just leaves the ownership problem to be resolved. Hartford made an active attempt to woo the New York Islanders by relocation which has now officially failed because the Islanders will get a new Long Island arena built. So the problem has become finding a rich investor, anxious to get into the NHL. Hartford with a proper arena is a sure money maker like Seattle so somebody is bound to appear though not necessarily this year. Predictability Rating: 40%.

5.     Another Western City Will Be Granted An NHL Franchise

There are lots of cities out west that the NHL would like see enter the league besides Houston. Milwaukee and San Francisco are already building new arenas though they might be too NBA basketball friendly for the NHL’s liking. Spokane and Saskatoon are long term possibilities. Right now the best possibilities are in Portland, San Diego, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City. Why would the NHL which will accept Seattle for sure and likely approve a serious Houston bid want yet another western city which will tilt league conference imbalance even further? So that the following can happen… Predictability Rating: 30%

6.     Resolution Of The Quebec and Arizona Problems

There is very little chance of the citizens of Phoenix approving a new downtown arena for the Coyotes. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns has declined to go into partnership for a new arena and instead further insulted the Coyotes by renovating its own arena to make it more basketball friendly. At the same time the NHL wants Quebec back in the league, loves the fan base now grown to over 800,000, and the new Videotron arena which they have rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal Canadiens preseason games, but cannot accept the current bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active, pro-separatist potential politician who made public, inappropriate, racist comments about the Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson and is considered too untrustworthy to ever be granted an expansion franchise. The NHL does not want to reject Quebec outright so their current status is officially listed as “deferred”. So moving the unpopular Coyotes to Quebec and adding two more western expansion cities is the obvious solution. This could happen… or it could not. There are other ways of getting more expansion money such as accepting Houston and Hartford now and postponing the Quebec/Phoenix problem still further. But adding Houston and another western city now and at the same time shifting the Coyotes to Quebec to get Peladeau out of the picture makes the most sense. It kills two birds with one stone. It adds two more western expansion fees plus any relocation fee the NHL might want to charge the Coyotes. Predictability Rating: 30%

7.     Pyeongchang Olympics NHL Player Participation Crisis

 

It is all quiet now but in recent years, several players (most notably Alexander Ovechkin) have said that they want to play for their countries in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. The self-indulgent snobs of the United States and Canada using shallow excuses pulled the NHL out of the Olympics but said they might return in the future. This is clearly an insulting act against South Korea. One of the reasons that the NHL cites for its decision is that Pyeongchang is in a time zone that won’t attract North American television viewers. But the next Winter Olympics will be in China which is in the same time zone or worse, but the Chinese market is over 1 billion people which the NHL wants to exploit… not like “lowly” South Korea which “only” has a market of 50 million. The insulting, laughable hypocrisy of pulling out of South Korea only to go back into China shows the usual ignorance and disrespect of American businessmen and politicians. But a lot of people including many current NHL players, some of which are Americans themselves, consider the Olympics to be a “higher” event, worthy of more respect and reverence than the NHL is showing. As January moves along, the issue of NHL player participation is going to come to the fore. This has never occurred before so nobody knows what the outcome will be. There will probably be some kind of crisis, but nobody knows how big. Predictability Rating: 75%.

8.     South Korea NHL Hockey Embarrassment

The NHL has officially pulled out of the Pyeongchang Olympics but the South Koreans may yet get the last laugh. They have improved their national team hockey program from almost nothing and are now so good, they won their World Hockey Championship Division level last year and got promoted to the top level this year when they will make their debut against “big 7″ competition for the first time. What a thing to happen for poor Bettman, just when he pulled the NHL out of Pyeongchang. Probably what everybody predicts is that the South Koreans, faced with tougher competition will lose every game and then be demoted back to the lower division with a pat on the back for improving so much. But if they do anything significant (even horrors! winning a medal!) and manage to stick around at the top level from now on, what’s Bettman and the NHL going to do? Will he be forced to invite them to be participants in the next World Cup of 2020? What a great way to promote the growth of international hockey which Bettman has stated he wants to do. Pulling the NHL out of Pyeongchang snubs a potential new, major NHL market of 50 million people. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans. Predictability Rating: Impossible to predict because nobody knows how good the upstart South Korean team will play against top competition for the first time. The prediction rating should be low… but almost everybody said that Canada would sweep the unknown USSR back in 1972 and look what happened. Anybody who wants to see international hockey grow should be cheering for South Korea in May.

I’ve just made predictions about the major long term issues that could affect hockey. There are others that could be addressed. The improvement of the quality of play in international hockey is probably the most important issue to be resolved if hockey is to expand world wide, but the likelihood of seeing anything positive done by the NHL and the international powers that be is probably 0% in 2018. Getting Hamilton or another southern Ontario team into the NHL should be a priority but nothing will be done. I have also refrained from commenting on the arena issues in Calgary, San Diego, and Ottawa.

And I have not bothered to predict on short term issues like who will win the World Junior Championships, possible major NHL trades, who will make the Stanley Cup playoffs and who will win the Stanley Cup. For now I’ll leave that to others or for later. The resolution of the eight issues I have listed will make 2018 a significant year for hockey.

 

Islanders Get New Belmont Arena: End Of Attempt At Moving To Hartford

Just when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was reveling in a huge Christmas present, a brand new NHL expansion team in Seattle, meaning that at long last the league has balanced conferences and can now realign, that the investment world finally accepts a $500 million expansion fee and even upped it to $650 million, he got another present, just as good, the end of the New York Islanders arena crisis. New York State has accepted an Islander bid to build a proper NHL arena of 18,000 seats at Belmont park. Construction will begin almost immediately.

The Islanders have long merited a brand new arena. Their original home, the Nassau Coliseum has shrunk in size compared to other NHL arenas over the decades. Once at the median level of 16,000 seats back in the 1970s, today the Nassau Coliseum is now the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. The Islanders moved out into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a facility even worse, built primarily for basketball with a smaller seating capacity, bad ice, and a significant number of obstructed seats. They had to get out. Their arena crisis of several decades is finally over.

The Islander arena issue was a severe deterrent to building a winning team on the ice. Hampered by inadequate revenues, even a good ownership/management team could not build a championship contender around star players like John Tavares. He can now sign a long term contract knowing things will get better. At long last a sure foundation has been reached. Whether the Islanders play at the Barclays Center or at the Nassau Coliseum while the new arena is built is irrelevant. Hopefully also, the image of the team that of being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers for the past few decades will change.

The arena announcement also ends the hopes of either Hartford or Quebec City of getting the team. Nordiques fans had purchased a block of tickets on one occasion as a way of demonstrating that they wanted Quebec City back in the NHL, and the Hartford mayor and Connecticut governor had sent a letter to the Islanders owners in hopes of moving the team to a renovated XL Center in the future. The NHL with memories of the Islanders glorious history of being the only American franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups obviously wanted the Islanders to remain the Islanders. Losing the team would have been a huge blow to their status in the United States.

The resolution of the Islanders arena problem leaves only Phoenix as a major arena crisis left. There is a good chance that the Arizona Coyotes will finally relocate. Quebec and Hartford will do better to look for a relocated team there. Ottawa is a semi-crisis due to current arena location, and Calgary is not a crisis at all, just one invented by a pouty Flames ownership which plays in one of the oldest, but still one of the best arenas in the NHL which seats over 19,000. It’s nice to be a professional sports franchise owner these days when you can expect expensive arenas/stadiums to be built for nothing at public expense.

These are great days for the NHL with the resolution of arena problems, new franchises being added at increased expansion fees, and more cities knocking at the door to get in the league. The New York Islanders were a potential major problem on Gary Bettman’s list. He can now cross them off forever.

 

Add Two More NHL Western Expansion Teams And Quebec Gets The Nordiques Back As A Gift From Phoenix

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.

coyotes

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.

Videotron

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.

 

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.

 

Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 9: Two Current Hot Potato Arena Issues Have To Be Favorably Resolved

It was bad enough that the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg because no investors wanted them showed the low status of NHL hockey in the United States as compared to the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, but two more problems that will do the same are still on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plate and have not gone away. Neither the Arizona Coyotes, nor the New York Islanders are set for the long term for where they will play. The Islanders play in the worst arena in the league, the Barclay’s Center where the ice is bad, there is obstructed view seating for hockey, and has the second smallest seating capacity in the NHL.

In Arizona’s case, they have been like a lame-duck franchise from the very beginning, and now nobody in the area wants to spend any more money building new arenas for a franchise that has had only one decent season where they challenged for the Stanley Cup in their entire history. Both Bettman and the Glendale citizens have publicly stated they are finished with each other, Glendale even admitting its preference to have an arena with no tenants that is only 13 years old.

coyotes

Bettman has stated that he wants the Coyotes to continue in Phoenix and a few years ago blocked Jim Balsille’s attempt to move the team to Hamilton. But how much longer can the Coyotes continue in Phoenix? Tempe refused to build an arena that would have been the third smallest in the NHL and the Arizona state legislature is unlikely to spend money on such an undistinguished franchise after the Glendale debacle.

Actually moving the Coyotes to another American city or even using them to solve the Quebec/Hamilton problems would not be that bad a blow. The only sufferers would be local fans who have genuinely embraced the game of hockey. Hockey has never taken off much there and it can be said it was the NHL’s fault for coming there in the first place instead of choosing markets in both the United States and Canada where there were was substantial enthusiasm for the game. Perhaps Phoenix’s best legacy will be inspiring last year’s number one draft choice, Auston Matthews to take up the sport.

But it is still another visual reminder of the NHL’s low status in the United States. It’s a definite blow to getting an American television contract that is the equivalent to what the NFL, NBA, and MLB gets. And it’s another forced move like Atlanta. Nobody except local fans are going to mourn the disappearance of the inglorious Coyotes but the fact they had to leave town says it all. And moving the Coyotes to another city would also mean the loss of another potential $500 million expansion fee.

But much more damaging would be the disappearance of the New York Islanders who are the only American franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups and until this year, were tied with Pittsburgh for most Stanley Cup victories by an American expansion team. Moving inglorious teams who have done nothing to distinguish themselves, like Atlanta and Phoenix is one thing, but the disappearance of the Islanders would be a serious loss of face for the NHL.

islanders

Since their golden years, the Islanders have been treated very shabbily. They needed a new and larger arena long ago, but nothing has been done and now the very existence of the team is at stake. The team can only be a lame duck team at best unless a proper arena is built; without a new facility, the Islanders will be unable to afford star players and build contending teams. As time passed the Nassau Coliseum became the second smallest arena in the NHL and the Barclay’s Center is even worse. The team is now like an also-ran compared to the New York Rangers.

Both Quebec and Hartford would take the Islanders in an instant. Quebec once snapped up a large block of Islander tickets and a large contingent of fans attended an Islander game in order to demonstrate to the NHL that they wanted the Nordiques back. And earlier this year, Hartford announced plans to renovate the XL Center with $250 million and the Hartford mayor and the Connecticut state governor sent a letter to the Islanders ownership inviting them to become a renewed Whalers once the renovation was complete.

The disappearance of the Islanders would be a bitter blow to the NHL. It’s hard to claim equality with the other three leagues, to make pretensions that NHL hockey is an “American game”, to hope for a substantial increase in American television revenue if one of your most glorious teams disappears because of indifference. Bettman would smile and put a brave face on it but everyone would know the real meaning if the Islanders disappeared. And of course another potential $500 million expansion fee would go with them.

These are two test cases for the NHL. Nobody questions the status of the NFL, NBA, and MLB in the United States, but the issue is very much alive for the NHL. How they resolve these two potentially damaging issues will say a lot about the status of the NHL in the United States now, and may significantly affect the policy direction of the league for the future.