Jun 4, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a press conference before game one of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NHL Expansion: The $250 Million Dollar Question

Nothing gets hockey fans talking like NHL expansion.  Since realignment to uneven conferences became a reality this year every corner of the hockey media are asking when expansion will be happening.  During Commissioner Gary Bettman’s State of the League address before game one of the Stanley Cup finals he said “We’re not planning on expanding. We’re not in an expansion mode or formal expansion process. We listen when people say, ‘We’d like to come visit you and tell you why we’re interested and where we’re interested.”

Well, “where” are people interested?  That is the “$250 million dollar question.” (projected NHL expansion fee) This is the top five places that could host a team within the next three years, in time for the 100th anniversary of the league.

5.  Seattle

The greater metropolitan area has a population of over three and half million people.  The city is home to some of the most recognizable companies in the world such as Starbucks and Microsoft.  If you do a Google search of Seattle and NHL expansion it would show that it is the most popular choice right now.  The money is reportedly there as many ownership groups have been tied to this market.  The fan base seems strong as there is a strong contingent of hockey fans who have latched onto minor league hockey and have had to adopt the Canucks as their “hometown” team (poor folks).

” We’re not planning on expanding. We’re not in an expansion mode or formal expansion process. We listen when people say, ‘We’d like to come visit you and tell you why we’re interested and where we’re interested.”-Gary Bettman

The main problem is this, where do they play?  There is a plan that has been agreed to for Chris Hansen to build an arena in Seattle for an NBA franchise.  Here is the problem though, that deal does not roll out without an NBA team.  The entire deal would have to be redone with an NHL franchise.  Some will ask why this seemingly perfect city for expansion is so low on this list.  It’s because waiting for the NBA to make a move is a poor plan for NHL expansion.  But that must be on the fast track you say, well that presents another problem.  What NHL franchise wants to start out in the shadow of the return of the beloved Sonics?  Can you imagine the NBA expanding into Winnipeg when the Jets returned?  Sounds like a way to set your team and marketing back years before you have even started.

4.  Kansas City

Like most of the teams on this list Kansas City also has a hockey history, albeit a little less glorious than the others.  The Kansas City Scouts played in the NHL from 1974 to 1976 before moving to Colorado and becoming the Rockies.

The Kansas City metropolitan area has a population of over two million people.  Building KC into a hockey market would take some work, and while they would have to compete with the Kansas Jayhawks at least there is no NBA team to go head to head with for dollars and interest in the market.

The key to Kansas City is the opposite of Seattle.  The reason this city is ranked higher though is that it is easier to find an owner for a market where there is already a building, see recent ownership changes in Florida and New Jersey, then to build an arena even if you have potential owners coming out of your ears. A ready made state of the art arena that is only seven years old is a beautiful sight to the NHL.  The Sprint Center is an absolutely beautiful arena that seats 17,544.  For a long time this arena has set Kansas City as a scare tactic that has been used to manipulate their existing markets to build new facilities for their teams, sadly for Kansas City there are still three better locations for NHL expansion.

3.  Houston

Feb 5, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; General view of the exterior at Toyota Center before a game between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This is a city with a metropolitan area of over 6.3 million people.  It is an NHL team away from becoming the 13th city to host all four major sports leagues.  It is a massive and and untapped media market for a sport that tends to inspire local followings.  There is a great arena that would seat over 17,000 for hockey, the Toyota Center.  The city is still flush with money as a large amount of major business’ call it home.  As well as a large amatuer hocky community in the area even with their AHL team picked up and left town.  Hockey has grown in the state of Texas and it may be time to expand there.

Now let’s look at the negatives.  Yes, it is an unproven market for a professional hockey franchise, but the NHL has tried many other “unproven” markets with varying degrees of success.  If the league wants to fight tooth and nail to keep hockey in Arizona then there is no reason it shouldn’t be tried in Houston.  The other major challenge would be competing with the Rockets for eyes when the Rockets seem to be hitting their first period of real contention since the days of Hakeem “The Dream”.  But that may be a blessing in disguise as it would take a few years to build a team and stock the prospect cupboard so that hopefully once the Rockets have finished their run and start the rebuild the Houston (insert cool or retro hockey team nickname here) can be on the rise.

2.  Las Vegas

Nov 8, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; SST driver Kyle LeDuc jumps through the marquee during SST on the Strip at Caesars Palace. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Vegas is on the smaller side of markets on this list at only 1.9 million people, but it makes up for that in several ways.  The AEG-MGM arena being built would be able to seat approximately 17,500 for hockey and will be a top flight world class facility.  Ownership would not be hard to find in this city and it would be a unique opportunity in America as Vegas is the last major city without a professional sports franchise of any kind.  In retrospect I think hockey would have had a better introduction to the southwest if it came here first as an entire generation of children in the area would have identified hockey players as the local professional sports heroes.

The objections to an NHL team here are quickly addressed.  Since the majority of the town works non-traditional hours how would they fill an arena?  First of all a lot of America works non-traditional hours yet arenas are filled quite nicely.  Second with all of the casinos looking to show high rollers a great time the highest priced tickets would always be sold.  Although it would be odd since every night a parade of visiting fans would fill the arena looking to mix their love of hockey with a brief respite from winter.

Over time the local fan base would grow just like it would anywhere else.

1.  Quebec City

Does a case even need to be made here?  The arena is being built and a hundred rich Canadians would line up to become the hero of a province.  The return of the Nordiques would resound very much the way the return of the Winnipeg Jets did.  Since 2011 it would be accurate to describe the Jets as mediocre yet they still have a waiting list on season tickets.   The Nordiques would have a very similar story.

There are those who say, well it didn’t work before why would it work now?  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is we do not anticipate the same disparity between the American and Canadian dollars that we once saw.  Secondly, and more importantly, Rodgers.  The new Canadian television deal will see each team receiving between $10 and $16.6 million dollars per year over the life of the contract as the amount escalates annually.  For some franchises that are swimming in cash this is no big deal but to smaller markets this is the difference between losing money and being able to make one more signing and still make a profit.  Also realize that with the national rights deal completely bought up by Sportsnet that TSN will break the bank to buy the regional broadcast rights for a Canadian team.

Part 2:  Next post will show how my top two teams would fit into a realigned NHL.

Tags: NHL NHL Expansion

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