In 1988, former NHL President, John Ziegler, started a plan that would expand the NHL into a league of 30 teams by the end of the 1990s. The basic plan was to expand into cities with strong urban centers that already had an identification with professional sports and also to find financially stable owners. Beginning with Ziegler and continued by current NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, nine teams were established in the Sun Belt as either new expansion teams or teams that moved from the Northern U.S. and Canada. As of the upcoming 2011-2012 season, eight of those teams remain in the Sun Belt: the San Jose Sharks (1991), Tampa Bay Lightning (1992), Florida Panthers (1993), Anaheim Ducks (1993), Dallas Stars (1993 – Formerly the Minnesota North Stars), Phoenix Coyotes (1996 – Formerly the Winnipeg Jets), Carolina Hurricanes (1997 – Formerly the Hartford Whalers), and the Nashville Predators (1998). There is much scrutiny whether these teams have been an asset or hindrance to the NHL. In most cases, they have been a little of both. Overall, these teams have proven to expand the recognition of hockey in the United States.
Although hockey is a product of Canada and its official national winter sport, it is also a sport that has crossed geographical boundaries into the United States and Europe. It was the NHL that brought the sport out of the north and into the Sun Belt states. As a result, hockey has grown further recognition, more fans, and more players of the sport. That seems to be an important and successful factor for the expansion; to spread the love of the game.
Fan bases are generally grown where there is a team to support. It’s necessary to have Sun Belt teams to grow those fan bases and spread interest in the game. Although this would also be true of adding teams in the North, there is competition with other hockey teams in the north that doesn’t exist in the southern states. For most in the south, hockey is a new exposure. The key is successfully marketing the teams in each region, bringing the community in with fan incentives, and having a strong team for those fans to support. Nothing brings in the fans more than a winning team. That’s true anywhere in sports. The Chicago Blackhawks are a perfect example of this. Their attendance numbers were at the bottom of the league for years until the 2008-2009 season when they made it back into the playoffs and made it to the Western Conference Finals. According to to ESPN attendance reports, they’ve ranked number one in attendance since that 2008-2009 season, all seasons where they made the playoffs and once won the Stanley Cup.
Most Sun Belt teams have a high level of interest and attendance records are near the league average with only Phoenix, Nashville, and Florida consistently near the bottom. The attendance records generally rise when the teams make the playoffs. Florida hasn’t made the playoff since 2000. However, with the signings they made in free agency this year, this will likely change soon. Phoenix seems to be the exception to this rule. They’ve made the playoffs the last two seasons and still have bottomed out in attendance, ranking dead last in 2009-2010 and 29th in 2010-2011. Even having “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky as a coach from 2005-2009 barely increased their numbers, but during that time they weren’t even qualifying for the playoffs.
The Sun Belt teams are not consistently under performing teams. As with northern teams, they’ve made playoff runs and some have even won the Stanley Cup. Of the Sun Belt teams added in the 1990s, all have made the playoffs multiple times in their history. The Florida Panthers have the lowest number of playoff appearances at only three, but Dallas and San Jose rank high with twelve and fourteen respectively. Just this past season, five of the Sun Belt teams were in the playoffs with Tampa Bay and San Jose both making it to their Conference finals. The Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, and the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. All regions gained fans as a result, and probably got a lot of kids interested in playing the sport themselves.
Bottom Line: This isn’t meant to be a discussion of Canada versus the United States, but rather about spreading the the love of the game and growing the sport wherever its fans may be, including the Sun Belt.
Going forward, every week, this blog will focus on each of the Sun Belt teams, their players, and their fans.
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