NHL expansion? Oh yeah, it's happening.
Despite much tut-tutting from the league this week in the wake of the Las Vegas rumors, there's no denying that the NHL's deep thinkers are eyeing two evenly balanced conferences. Since contraction is out of the question, that means they'll have to plant two more flags in the soil.
Which begs two questions: When? And where?
The timing is difficult to suss out, but the sense is that we're talking years, not decades. The conditions for expansion have rarely been more favorable, with the league having brought in record revenues of $3.6 billion last season. Also, franchise valuations hint at vast riches to be had by team owners. It's a market that appeals to both the buyers and the sellers.
As for locations, well, that situation is fluid as well. But if a decision is made in the next 12 months, here's how we see the top 10 favorites shaking out:
1. Las Vegas
Pros: Construction is underway on an NHL-ready arena. There are several parties interested in ownership, including Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer. The city offers unparalleled corporate ticket/sponsorship opportunities and the location is ideal for Western Conference rivalries with the Kings and the Ducks. Plus an NHL franchise would be the only major league team in town.
Cons: The team could be overlooked amid Sin City's myriad of entertainment options. There's a limited history/demand for sport in the area. A significant portion of the population works the night shift. And the stigma of gambling would have to be overcome.
Bottom Line: The location works, a rink is on the way and money seems to be no problem. Despite the loud concerns of naysayers, Vegas is the most viable Western option in the two- to five-year time frame.
Pros: There's nearly a century's worth of hockey history to build on in a sports city that is fanatical, as evidenced by league-leading support for its MLS club. The team would have a natural rivalry with Vancouver, and there have been multiple expressions of interest by prospective owners. It's a Western Conference-friendly location, so the Pacific Northwest is ideal for expanding the league's footprint.
Cons: No suitable building is in place. Barring a change in the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and prospective owner Chris Hansen, construction of a new arena is contingent on Hansen first acquiring the rights to an NBA franchise. He recently lost a major partner after Steve Ballmer bought the NBA's Clippers. Also, two previous expansion bids (in 1974 and ’90) failed.
Bottom line: Multiple sources say that Seattle is the NHL's first, second and third choice for expansion because the city can check off so many boxes. The problem is that Hansen got there first and has stated that he has no desire to own a majority interest in a hockey club. Unless he and the city allow the MOU to be altered to allow a hockey franchise to become the initial tenant of the proposed SoDo arena, the NHL will be forced to wait for the NBA to show up first.
3. Quebec City
Pros: An NHL-ready arena will open its doors in 2015, billionaire Pierre Karl Peladeau is in line to own team and there is the expectation of nightly sell-outs and strong TV revenues. A rivalry with the Canadiens would be revived. Quebec City has deep historical ties to the league and to the sport. A franchise here would also provide another Canadian revenue stream to help support the league's have-nots.
Cons: The Eastern Conference location, and Peladeau's dedication to Quebec sovereignty, could be problematic for the league.
Bottom line: Quebec City should be first in line for readmission to the NHL by almost every standard except one: Any expansion plan likely will be linked balancing the conferences. So barring an Eastern club generously (and inexplicably) offering to play in the West, there's no chance that the league's next two clubs will set their clocks by Eastern Standard Time.
Pros: There are passionate supporters of the junior league Winterhawks, a team that averages nearly 7,500 fans a game, and which tops 10,000 multiple times each season. The Moda Center is NHL-ready. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen is interested in becoming an owner, and he reportedly made a bid to bring the Coyotes to Portland before the franchise finalized its deal with city of Glendale. The Western Conference location is ideal and offers a geographical rivalry with Vancouver.
Cons: The expansion price tag (in the neighborhood of $275 million) is said to be too rich for Allen's tastes, and insiders say that it is more likely that he would buy a distressed franchise for relocation.
Bottom Line: The city sets up as an ideal market, but the one man with the money to make it happen is more passionate about a bargain than bringing hockey to town. Seems like a long shot at this point.
5. San Antonio
Pros: AT&T Center is smallish, seating 16,000-plus, but it is NHL-ready, and there would be a natural rivalry with the Stars. It's a top-40 TV market and its population has grown more than 30% since 2000. There would also be no competition with MLB or the NFL. It's an ideal Western Conference location.
Cons: The current home of the AHL's Rampage has a limited hockey tradition and the town is owned by the NBA's Spurs. There's also no apparent owner-in-waiting.
Bottom Line: All signs point to San Antonio being a peripheral candidate for expansion, but the city has been mentioned so many times by league sources that there is definitely something more here. If an interested owner stepped up, a deal could come together relatively quickly.
GALLERY: The fates of NHL Expansion Teams
NHL Expansion Teams
Los Angeles Kings | 1967
One of the six new teams the NHL added in its landmark expansion from the Original Six era, the Kings were originally owned by Jack Kent Cooke, who saw great potential in the LA area. Front office mismanagement fueled poor attendance, but a subsequent owner, Bruce McNall, put the Kings on the sports map in 1988 by acquiring Wayne Gretzky. The team reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, but went bankrupt in 1995. It was rescued by new owners Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski, and has since been quite successful, winning the Cup in 2012 and ’14. All-time regular season record: 1,501-1,605-424-106; Postseason appearances: 28; Stanley Cups: 2
Minnesota North Stars | 1967
Awarded to a hockey hotbed, the North Stars began to struggle at the gate when they failed to reach the playoffs five times in six seasons (1973-79), and were merged with Cleveland Barons in a bid to keep them afloat. They recovered on the ice, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1981 and ’91, but remained the subject of relocation threats (Anaheim; San Francisco). They were finally moved to Dallas in 1993, becoming the Stars and winning the franchise’s first Cup in 1999. All-time regular season record: 1,572-1,510-459-95; Playoff appearances: 30; Stanley Cups: 1
California Seals | 1967
Victims of an identity crisis (their name was changed from California to Oakland during their first season, then to “Golden Seals” in 1970) and a dire shortage of talent, the Seals were never winners during their 11 seasons in the league. They made the playoffs, exiting in the first round, in their second and third seasons, but where otherwise a hot potato franchise with low attendance and frequent ownership changes. In 1976, they moved to Cleveland (the first NHL franchise to relocate since 1935) and became the Barons, only to be merged with the struggling Minnesota North Stars two years later, thus becoming the only NHL team to go under since the Brooklyn Americans in 1942. All-time regular season record: 229-488-141-0; Playoff appearances: 2; Stanley Cups: 0
Philadelphia Flyers | 1967
The most consistently stable and certainly one of the most successful original expansion era franchises, the Flyers are still controlled by original owner Ed Snider. They began life in the NHL’s new “West Division” which housed the six expansion teams the league added in 1967, and have since made eight Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning twice. All-time regular season record: 1,821-1,254-457-104; Postseason appearances: 37; Stanley Cups: 2
Pittsburgh Penguins | 1967
The Pens have seen great highs and dramatic lows during their 47 years in the NHL. Blessed with superstars such as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby plus four Stanley Cup Final appearances and three championships, they’ve also suffered dire and sometimes prolonged droughts on the ice. They were nearly moved to Seattle in the ‘70s, and by the mid-2000s were in the throes of financial collapse and on the verge of being relocated (possibly Kansas City or Hamilton, Ontario), but the arrival of Crosby in 2005, Lemieux’s ownership, and a new arena have restored stability. All-time regular season record: 1,594-1,566-383-93; Playoff appearances: 29; Stanley Cups: 3
St. Louis Blues | 1967
Ultimate survivors, the Blues began NHL life by representing the expansion West Division in the Stanley Cup Final for three straight seasons, but they remain the only existing member of the Class of ’67 that has not won the Cup. By the 1970s, they began experiencing persistent financial difficulties that led to a succession of ownership changes. At one point in the early ‘80s, the Blues looked like a candidate for contraction, and the NHL took over the team after preventing it from being relocated to Saskatoon. Last season, Forbes ranked St. Louis 29th in value, at $185 million. All-time regular season record: 1,625-1,469-432-110; Postseason appearances: 38; Stanley Cups: 0
Buffalo Sabres | 1970
Blessed with one of the most passionate fan bases in all of sports, the Sabres have had their ups and downs, making two Stanley Cup Final appearances and, since the late ‘90s, surviving financial difficulties, ownership changes, and the possibility of being relocated. Current owner Terry Pegula, a lifelong fan, has vowed to rebuild the struggling team, which is still seeking its first Cup. All-time regular season record: 1,611-1,291-409-99; Postseason appearances: 29; Stanley Cups: 0
Vancouver Canucks | 1970
After Vancouver nearly landed the struggling Oakland Seals, the Canucks became the city’s first major pro hockey team since the Millionaires of the PCHL folded in 1926. The franchise—which remains stable and is ranked by Forbes as the NHL’s fourth most-valuable ($700 million)— has survived stretches of losing seasons and a threat from the WHA’s Vancouver Blazers, while making three Stanley Cup Final appearances and occasionally breaking the hearts of its devoted and often demanding fans. All-time regular season record: 1,415-1,504-391-100; Postseason appearances: 26; Stanley Cups: 0
Atlanta Flames | 1972
The NHL’s first foray in Atlanta—the owners of the NBA’s Hawks were awarded the franchise—did not go well despite the Flames making the playoffs in six of their first eight seasons. Five first round exits didn’t help, but the city’s fans were apathetic and the team struggled financially, thanks in part to receiving little TV revenue. In 1980, principal owner Tom Cousins sold the team to avoid bankruptcy. It was hoped that the Flames would remain in Atlanta, but buyer Nelson Skalbania moved them to Calgary in time for the 1980-81 season. All-time regular season record: 1,491-1,279-379-105; Postseason appearances: 26; Stanley Cups: 1
New York Islanders | 1972
Their first season was an epic 12-60-6 disaster, but the team soon began a meteoric rise into a dynasty that won four successive Stanley Cups during a run of five straight final appearances (1980-84). After that, owner John O. Pickett, who had signed a disastrous long-term arena lease that denied the team badly needed revenue, moved to Florida and handed control of the Isles to the first of a succession of dubious owners that included notorious con man John Spano. A long descent into mediocrity ensued. Bleeding red ink, current owner Charles Wang, unable to replace the crumbling Nassau Coliseum, decided to move the Isles to Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season. All-time regular season record: 1,405-1,399-347-103; Postseason appearances: 22; Stanley Cups: 4
Kansas City Scouts | 1974
True nomads, the Scouts departed for Colorado and became the Rockies after two disastrous, sparsely attended seasons in Kansas City during which they won only 27 of their 160 games. They weren’t much better in their new home, reaching the playoffs once before moving to New Jersey in 1982 and becoming the Devils, who drew the ire of Wayne Gretzky for being, as he famously called them, “a Mickey Mouse franchise.” Since then, the team has fared much better on the ice, if not at the box office where it still struggles. The Devils have had their share of ownership changes and in 1995 were rumored to be moving to Nashville. All-time regular season record: 1,314-1,361-328-95; Postseason appearances: 22; Stanley Cups: 3
Washington Capitals | 1974
The Caps survived (barely) a horrid 8-67-5 first season that saw them set a record for futility. Blessed with a deep-pocketed owner (Abe Pollin), they hung on and eventually became a competitive team, though by the early 80s they were in danger of being relocated. A 14-year streak of playoff appearances helped keep them in D.C., and in 1998 they reached the Stanley Cup Final. Owned by the equally wealthy Ted Leonsis since 1999, the Capitals remain a stable if frustrating franchise that frequently fails to make the most of the considerable talent it puts on the ice. All-time regular season record: 1,370-1,317-303-108; Postseason appearances: 24; Stanley Cups: 0
Edmonton Oilers | 1979
The NHL absorbed four WHA teams in 1979 and the Oilers are the only one that’s still in its original city. The team dominated the league in the 1980s, winning five Stanley Cups in six years, but its been a bumpy road ever since. A series of ownership changes and a recent arena dispute led to rumors of relocation, possibly Seattle. On the ice, the team has been a doormat in recent years despite a spate of high draft picks. All-time regular season record: 1,224-1,1102-262-110; Postseason appearances: 20; Stanley Cups: 5
Hartford Whalers | 1979
Absorbed from the WHA in 1979; the Whalers featured the 51-year-old Gordie Howe and went on to develop a reputation as lovable losers who advanced as far as the second round of the playoffs only once. After moving to Carolina in 1997 and becoming the Hurricanes, the franchise went on to make two Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning the championship in 2006. However, it languishes at 27th on Forbes’ franchise value list (at $187 million). Die-hard Whalers fans remain, and there is occasional talk of the NHL returning to Hartford. All-time regular-season record: 1,104-1,230-263-101; Postseason appearances: 13; Stanley Cups: 1
Quebec Nordiques | 1979
Yet another of the four 1979 additions from the WHA, the Nordiques boasted some very competitive teams in the 1980s (two reached the conference finals) and a heated rivalry with Montreal. But after six straight losing seasons, including a 12-61-7 mark in 1989-90, the franchise fell into financial difficulties that remained despite some vastly improved teams. In 1995, the Nords moved to Colorado, winning the Stanley Cup during their first season as the Avalanche. The franchise struggled at the gate in recent seasons, but a promising 2013-14 season improved the outlook. All-time regular-season record: 1,242-1,108-261-87; Postseason appearances: 22; Stanley Cups: 2
Winnipeg Jets | 1979
This original WHA franchise was absorbed by the NHL and beloved during its tenure in Winnipeg, a small market that took a brutal hit from a rise in player salaries in the ‘90s. Rumored to be moving to Minnesota, the Jets ended up in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona in July 1996 and were renamed the Coyotes. Saddled with an arena in an inconvenient location for its fans, the team has endured years of financial hardship and was taken over by the NHL after it went bankrupt. A leading candidate for relocation, the Yotes remain in Arizona after being sold to a new ownership group in August 2013. All-time regular season record: 1,121-1,206-266-105; Postseason appearances: 16; Stanley Cups: 0
San Jose Sharks | 1991
The NHL returned to the San Francisco Bay Area due to the efforts of Gordon and George Gund III, former minority owners of the California (Oakland) Golden Seals. Awarded a new franchise after selling their share in the North Stars, the Gunds had to let the Sharks play in San Francisco’s Cow Palace for two seasons until their new arena in San Jose was completed. The franchise has since become one of the NHL’s most stable and competitive even if does have a frustrating reputation for great regular season success followed by postseason disappointment. All-time regular season record: 797-710-121-110; Postseason appearances: 17; Stanley Cups: 0
Ottawa Senators | 1992
Named after Ottawa’s original Senators, who won 11 Stanley Cups, the new franchise was an attractive choice for the NHL due to its passionate fan base, existing arena and plan for a new facility. After four rocky losing seasons, the Sens became consistently competitive and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Despite some recent poor showings, the team remains stable with good support and a committed owner in Eugene Melnyk, though there have been reports that he is seeking a minority partner who could eventually take control. All-time regular season record: 741-699-115-103; Postseason appearances: 14; Stanley Cups: 0
Tampa Bay Lightning | 1992
The NHL’s first foray into Florida, the franchise was awarded to an ownership group fronted by Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, who became GM and president. The Lightning played their first season in Tampa’s 11,000-seat Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds and later moved to the baseball-friendly Suncoast Dome. Dicey ownership and debt left the Bolts on the verge of being taken over by the NHL while they struggled to become a consistent playoff team. Financial losses and ownership changes have continued, but the team’s 2004 Stanley Cup win and recent return to competitiveness have helped keep the Bolts in place. All-time regular season record: 652-785-112-109; Postseason appearances: 7; Stanley Cups: 1
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim | 1993
Awarded to The Walt Disney Company, their named based on a popular movie, the Ducks had a brand new arena and local rivalry with the LA Kings awaiting them. Since their very respectable 33-46-5 first season, they have enjoyed significant success, appearing in the Stanley Cup Final twice and, in 2007, becoming the first California-based NHL team to win the chalice. They remain blessed with solid ownership and a roster that is considered a solid Cup contender. All-time regular-season record: 722-637-107-108; Postseason appearances: 10; Stanley Cups: 1
Florida Panthers | 1993
The second franchise to set up shop in Florida has battled long stretches of mediocrity, poor management, and the Miami area’s stiff competition for entertainment dollars. One of the few bright spots: a surprise trip to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final by a team assembled by Bill Torrey, the architect of the Islanders dynasty. But Florida’s new owners, who claim to be losing $30 million per year, have decried the team’s business model as “not sustainable” and are seeking more tax revenue from Broward County. No wonder the Panthers are often considered ripe for relocation. All-time regular season record: 617-677-142-138; Postseason appearances: 4; Stanley Cups: 0
Nashville Predators | 1998
Thanks in part to a new arena and the city’s failure to lure the Devils from New Jersey, Nashville was awarded a new franchise in an expansion surge that saw the NHL also plant teams in Atlanta, Columbus, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Predators were the first of them to take the ice and the ensuing years have seen a string of steady if unremarkable teams, relocation rumors, ownership change and controversy (Boots Del Biaggio’s bankruptcy and fraud conviction), and attempts to drum up fan support. But the Preds continue to hang in there. All-time regular season record: 557-479-60-100; Playoff appearances: 7; Stanley Cups: 0
Atlanta Thrashers | 1999
The NHL’s return to Atlanta went no better than its first go-round with the Flames. Cursed by poor management, consistent mediocrity, and an understandably apathetic fan base, the second team to take the ice in the NHL’s most recent expansion surge managed to make the playoffs only once in 11 seasons before being sold. The new group moved the team to Winnipeg, where it was warmly received and renamed the Jets. However, the team remains consistently mediocre and the question now is how long the honeymoon will last. All-time regular season record: 440-528-45-101; Playoff appearances: 1; Stanley Cups: 0
Columbus Blue Jackets | 2000
An arena issue forced Columbus into a battle to acquire what is now the NHL’s least valuable franchise ($175 million, according to Forbes). During their history, the Blue Jackets have been consistently non-descript, frequently lacking star power and suffering from poor management. Their fortunes are looking brighter due to the arrival in the past year of savvy hockey ops president John Davidson and respected GM Jarmo Kekalainen. All-time regular season record: 409-490-33-100; Playoff appearances: 2; Stanley Cups: 0
Minnesota Wild | 2000
The league’s youngest expansion team took the ice three years after it was awarded in the NHL’s second stab at sticking in Minnesota. Now owned by a group led by Craig Leipold, who bought the Wild after selling the Predators in 2007, the Wild has struggled to make consistent postseason appearances. The high-priced additions of free agent stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in 2012 have spearheaded some marked improvement, as evidenced by the Wild’s upset of Colorado in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, but the team has yet to reach the conference final. Even so, its future in Minneapolis-St. Paul is hardly in doubt. All-time regular season record: 474-408-55-95; Playoff appearances: 5; Stanley Cups: 0
6. San Diego
Pros: The San Diego region is the eighth-largest in the country in terms of population—and still growing—and it has no other winter sports team. The city has nearly 50 years of history with the game at the minor-league level, so the sport has a strong local profile. Hockey has worked brilliantly in other California markets.
Cons: No arena is in place or planned. The city's NFL and MLB teams routinely rank near the bottom of their leagues in attendance. There's no owner-in-waiting.
Bottom Line: Geographically, San Diego is an ideal fit for the league's broadcast-focused footprint, and if even half of those “small” crowds that the Chargers and the Padres draw show up for hockey, a team would sell out every night. But until an arena and an owner are in place (hey, Ron Burgundy likes hockey, doesn't he?), San Diego remains on the back burner.
Pros: If New York and Los Angeles can support two NHL clubs, Toronto is a natural—the pent-up demand for Maple Leafs tickets suggests that there is room for another franchise there. TV and box office windfalls would lead to a massive influx of cash to the Hockey Related Revenue pot. And the line of interested owners stretches nearly the length of Yonge Street.
Cons: A recent attempt to fund an arena in suburban Markham was quashed by angry voters. Speaking during the debate, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that arena proponents should “proceed with the assumption that [an NHL expansion franchise] will never happen." Territorial rights issues would have to be resolved with the Maple Leafs and the Sabres. Non-Leafs hockey teams have struggled to carve out a niche in the community, so a second team would always be second banana to the Original Six club.
Bottom Line: The passion for hockey in the city is so deeply ingrained that it's inevitable that someone, someday will get an arena built and secure a second franchise for the area. Now, though? The money isn't there. Until that person or corporation steps up, Toronto 2.0 is nothing more than a beautiful pipe dream.
Pros: Toyota Center is NHL-ready with seating for 17,800, and there's a long hockey history in the city that dates back to the 1940s. The WHL's Aeros enjoyed solid success and the AHL's Aeros were doing well until they failed to secure a lease agreement after the 2012–13 season. Houston is a massive and growing city that has the nation's 10th-largest TV market. It has the corporate base to pick up the high-end expansion tab, and it offers a natural rivalry with Dallas. Of no small consequence, a team here would fit into the Western Conference.
Cons: The lease agreement with Toyota Center gives the NBA's Rockets and owner Les Alexander exclusive rights to put an NHL team in the building. After two failed attempts to acquire an existing team, Alexander appears to have lost interest in the league. It's unlikely that another building could be funded with an NHL team as the primary tenant.
Bottom Line: There are many reasons to rank Houston higher on this list, but one obstacle trumps them all: Alexander is apparently disinclined to be shot down a third time.
Pros: This strong Canadian market would draw from Toronto's suburbs. It has a facility ready for short-term immediate use, and multiple owners have expressed interest in Hamilton in the past.
Cons: Territorial issues with the Maple Leafs and the Sabres have silenced previous bids. FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum) is an aging relic that would have to be replaced. Hamilton failed in a 1990 expansion bid, and multiple attempts to relocate franchises there have been aborted. It's not regarded as a “major league” city.
Bottom Line: It's almost cruel to mention "the Hammer" here, considering how often it has been jerked around through the years. Truth is, Hamilton has no chance of landing an expansion club at this point. Its best hope is as a relocation option for a team that's in a hurry to get out of town and isn't too picky about facilities. Winnipeg notwithstanding, those opportunities don't come around often.
10. Kansas City
Pros: It has an NHL-ready arena—the Sprint Center—in which a hockey team would be the primary tenant. The city has shown support for preseason games, selling out the arena in 2011 for a game between the Kings and the Penguins. There's no competition from the NBA.
Cons: The NHL's previous attempt to put a team in town, the Kansas City Scouts, failed after just two seasons. There's been no expression of interest in ownership from any local suitors, and there's no grassroots hockey base to build on. Analysis suggests that the city is economically incapable of supporting another major league team.
Bottom Line: Despite promises back in 2004 from then-AEG president Tim Leiweke (what's he up to these days?) to land a team within a year, there's been little more than idle flirting between the city and various clubs that are looking for a better deal. Then as now, K.C.'s candidacy seems based more on it simply being there than on any great demand in the area for a franchise. It seems destined to serve primarily as a relocation threat rather than as a legitimate expansion option.