For years NHL expansion has been a hot topic. I personally think that the largest factor behind this is the general rise in interest for hockey, especially in the United States. This rise in interest has created very vocal communities iterate that they heavily desire an NHL expansion team. The strong public interest in these communities had led investors to flock to these cities proposing plans and constructing arenas in the hopes of landing a NHL team and tapping into the financial prospects of a budding hockey market. As an architect, NHL expansion is intriguing. The coming of the “smart” arena is only a matter of time. “Smart” technology has almost become a necessity and has already made it into some sports stadiums and I can only guess this will hold true to any not currently under-construction NHL arena and will create a new idea of the design of an arena. This combined with myself being a huge hockey fan has made NHL expansion especially intriguing to me. So when reports started to surface of an ownership group being chosen for a Las Vegas NHL expansion team I just had to express my opinions on the subject. I will warn you upfront, nothing I will say is concrete as nothing is concrete until the NHL says as such. My opinions are completely my own and completely biased as I feel strongly about this subject. If you feel differently about this subject, I would love to hear your view as well, especially if you are coming from a potential NHL expansion market. I have only lived in original six markets (Toronto, Detroit) so this may skew my opinions on expansion. You have been warned.
NHL Expansion WILL Happen (IMHO):
I might as well start where the current rumors on NHL expansion come from. According to reports from CBC, the NHL has “chosen” William Foley and the Maloof family to be the owners for a future Las Vegas franchise, if the board of governors chooses proceed with NHL expansion. I put “chosen” in brackets because the NHL realistically hasn’t chosen anything until it is voted on by the board of governors and the NHLPA. The best you can really say about William Foley and the Maloof family is they are the front-runners for a future deal. Gary Bettman was quick to reiterate this fact and squash other rumors about expansion through an official press release here. But did Bettman really say NHL expansion is off the table? No, he took out his usual vague responses leaving all answers open-ended.
There is one anomaly to this whole situation that to me gives us an answer. The NHL all too often never says anything of substantial importance about league affairs unless they are 99.99% sure that will be the outcome. So the fact that the league confirmed they have been talking with the above mentioned owner group about a Las Vegas franchise to me signals they have at least definitely internally, although not officially, decided to move forward with some form of an NHL expansion. But in my honest opinion this decision was made a couple years ago during NHL realignment. I find it hard to believe that the board of governors would have approved the current alignment, which essentially screws over a majority (16/30 members) of their respective franchises in regards to playoff qualification, without a clause requiring an expansion to the western conference in the immediate/near future to even out the conferences. This would make an equal chance to make the playoffs amongst all teams. I just can’t see more than half the board of governors agreeing to be at a disadvantage indefinitely. I also can’t see the board of governors approving realignment just to send an Eastern Conference team to the Western Conference especially since the only 2 teams that you could argue could go to the Western Conference are the same 2 that just got moved to the Eastern Conference after years of lobbying to be realigned. And because of these facts I am expecting the inevitable coming of NHL expansion to happen sooner than later and to be in 2 cities on the western side of the continent.
Below are my brief takes on the cities that tend to currently be at the forefront of the talks on potential NHL expansion in the media.
Las Vegas, Nevada:
To me this is a (almost) done deal. This is due to the league’s history of not stating anything it isn’t almost 100% sure will happen. The fact they have gone as far to single out but not officially choose an ownership group confirms that the NHL will most likely expand into the Las Vegas market. Whether it will be with the proposed ownership group of the Maloof family and William Foley is to be seen, but one thing is for sure. The NHL wouldn’t be putting the time and effort to talk to them and single them out as an ownership group if they weren’t interested in making a deal to go to Las Vegas.
In my eyes, NHL expansion to Las Vegas is a huge mistake and I am sad that it seems to be the most likely place to get an expansion team. Sure the NHL awards are there every year, but that only does well because of the spectacle it is, and Vegas is all about spectacle. It is for this reason that if an NHL expansion team were to be formed in Las Vegas I believe it would only do well for a couple years at most. Las Vegas is for onetime extravaganzas, not 82 regular season games. I’m sorry, I just don’t see a strong/large enough fan base to sustain the team after the initial excitement of a new team wears off. If the desert city of Phoenix can’t be sustainable with its large permanent population, I have a hard time believing another desert city with a much smaller permanent population can sustain a NHL franchise. And I don’t buy the argument that visitors to the city would go to the games. The only visitors that would go to the games would be people from strong hockey markets that could never afford the lofty ticket prices of their home market. There are so many more markets where a NHL expansion team is deserved. To me, the NHL putting an NHL expansion team in Las Vegas is the equivalent of the league playing Russian Roulette (and in true Gary Bettman fashion, the pun is neither intentional nor unintentional).
This is one of those markets that deserves an NHL expansion team. The support and fan base is huge. Unfortunately politics haven’t been so kind. It seems any chance of an NHL expansion team in Seattle hinges on the return of the NBA as well. This is a huge disappointment as I believe Seattle has all the right characteristics to be an NHL expansion team. Seattle has a blossoming hockey fan base, is ranked the fastest growing major city in the United States, and only 140 miles (225 kilometers) from downtown Vancouver. Its proximity to the Canucks would make for a nice freeway rivalry similar to the Anaheim Ducks and L.A. Kings and help bolster both markets as did the rivalry between the Ducks and Kings.
Quebec City, Quebec:
As Tim Leiweke says in this article, “Like we did in Winnipeg, where we felt an obligation to return the team to Winnipeg … do we not, as a league, also owe Quebec another start?”. I Agree completely with this statement. But unfortunately realignment has not played well for Quebec City’s chances of landing an NHL expansion team. Due to the perceived decision made during realignment, as stated above, it seems the only realistic way Quebec City will get a team is through relocation. The Florida Panthers are the obvious candidate being one of the only unstable teams during a very stable time in the NHL as a whole. Gary Bettman has been quick to throw relocation ideas aside as impossible but he showed a similar negativity towards relocation in the time leading up to relocating the Atlanta Thrashers. Only time will tell on Quebec City, as the city could also get a team if the NHL expansion were to be larger than 2 teams (i.e. 3 western conference a 1 eastern conference NHL expansion teams). I personally think more than 32 teams in the NHL would spread the talent to thin so I can’t see that option happening.
Ok, I get it. Its kinda near St. Louis. But still I haven’t heard much about an avid fan base, and to be honest I don’t really consider 250 miles (402 kilometers) a freeway rivalry even if both cities are on the same highway. It just seems odd to me to keep pushing for more southern American teams, when so many southern franchises have failed and many economist say the NHL would be much better off financially in more northern markets such as the studies done by Nate Silver found here. This is a fascinating article on the make-up of the NHL in its current state and I only wish Gary Bettman would take the time to read it. And to top it off, Nate Silver ranks Kansas City as the potential American NHL expansion city with the smallest market as compared to 15 other cities. Las Vegas falls 14 on Nate Silver’s list with Seattle being the highest ranked American city for NHL expansion.
So what will happen when NHL expansion finally becomes official? It’s anybody’s guess. But of the 4 most talked about potential NHL expansion cities this month only 1 makes sense to me, Seattle. Quebec City would be great but is more likely a relocation potential city. By analyzing statistics such as Nate Silver’s found here, it can only be seen that any action by Gary Bettman or other governors pushing for more southern American teams, like Las Vegas or Kansas City, is short-sighted and probably for their own personal interests and not for the betterment of the National Hockey League. Only time will tell if they stick to their guns, or choose to do the logical thing during NHL expansion instead. I, as a true hockey fan, hope for the latter during the confusing, frustrating, exciting time that is the inevitable forthcoming NHL expansion.
Cover Photo: Proposed Las Vegas Arena. Photo by: businesswire.com