NHL expansion is once again being speculated about after Vancouver Province columnist Tony Gallagher wrote expanding to Las Vegas was a “done deal.” If it’s not speculation about Sin City, it’s about Seattle, or Quebec City or a second team in the Greater Toronto Area. With a 16-14 imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences, the need for two new teams, or one relocated team is obvious. The sense is that something, in the relatively near future, will change the current alignment.
While nothing is imminent, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where are the potential destinations for NHL expansion or relocation? Let’s have a quick rundown.
1. Las Vegas
Aside from the obvious concerns over having a team in a gambling haven, Vegas is an untapped professional sports market. If the NHL does expand there in the next few years, it would be the first into the city. How big of a fan base the team would have and how much long-term interest there would be in a hockey team are legitimate concerns for fans of a league that has cancelled one and a half seasons in the past 10 years to “save” struggling franchises. In Las Vegas, there are plenty of entertainment options that go well beyond the sphere of sport, so how well would a losing team draw fans?
Still, it’s an intriguing destination. No doubt players would love to play there and the city is growing – although its population is an estimated 603,488.
What’s more, a private arena is currently being constructed. The $375 million MGM-AEG project broke ground in May and will seat 20,000 people. It’s not scheduled to be completed until the spring of 2016, meaning a prospective NHL team could move in for the 2016-17 season, just in time for the league’s 100th birthday.
2. Quebec City
The return of the Nordiques is probably the most interesting expansion option for the more traditional hockey fans, especially considering the Winnipeg Jets recently stoked the memories of a bygone era when they returned three years ago.
There are no guarantees, of course, that the city will land an NHL franchise after it completes construction of the building. But a major reason the Jets landed back in Winnipeg was because that city had an arena ready to move into.
For a number of reasons, the NHL would be a good fit in the Pacific Northwest. First off, there isn’t currently an NHL presence on the American side of the border. Second, a Seattle (or Portland for that matter) franchise would be a natural rival for Vancouver, something the NHL would love. Third, the whole East-West split and how Seattle could help balance it.
As far as American markets go, Seattle is the most intriguing, but it comes with its own issues. There is an arena deal in place between the city and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, but an NBA team must be in town first. Hansen has bid on several NBA franchises that had the potential to relocate (Minnesota, Milwaukee and Sacramento), but failed in each attempt. His partner for each of those pitches, Steve Ballmer, just purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for a record $2 billion, so unless he moves that team out of the shared Staples Center and into Seattle, Hansen is still far from landing a basketball team. Hansen himself has no interest in owning an NHL team, but he is interested in having a hockey team as a tenant.
In mid-August, Hansen met with Vancouver native and Los Angeles-based businessman Victor Coleman and the two groups signed a non-binding agreement, “which lays out the terms for Coleman’s contribution to the project and his potential revenue streams for a hockey franchise.”
Coleman himself is very optimistic about the NHL in Seattle, calling it a “perfect match.” The problem is, the memorandum of understanding Hansen has with the city of Seattle on the arena deal calls for the arrival of an NBA team before any building gets constructed. Hansen and Coleman could explore the city officials’ willingness to redraw the MOU to allow for the building to be put up even without a basketball team. However, there is nothing to suggest that change is imminent.
4. Markham/Greater Toronto Area
For a while, it seemed like a Markham Arena was a slam dunk. Then it wasn’t. Then it was again. And now the process is in a holding pattern, with city council unwilling to support a loan that would help put the arena up. As Ken Campbell noted in his piece Wednesday, municipal elections are coming up in a few weeks, which could reinvigorate the $325 million project if mayor Frank Scarpitti is re-elected.
The Maple Leafs would put up a fight if a team moved into its backyard, but the NHL has repeatedly said the franchise does not hold a veto on the matter.
5. Kansas City
Back when the Pittsburgh Penguins were in trouble and threatening to move, Kansas City was all the rage. But now, the city is on the back-burner and rarely mentioned in expansion/relocation speculation.
The Sprint Center seats roughly 17,554 for hockey and the NHL has been there before for pre-season games. The last time the league was there was in 2011 for a warm-up Pittsburgh-Los Angeles game, which sold out. After two years off, the NHL will return to Kansas City on Sept. 27, when the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars play.
Being a non-traditional hockey market and one that failed after two years in the 1970s, Kansas City doesn’t grab you as an NHL destination like the three northern cities or the fresh potential of Las Vegas. But it has an NHL-ready arena without the seasonal competition of the NBA. And the arena is owned by AEG, which also owns the Los Angeles Kings, so the destination has ties to the NHL already.
For years, decades, Hamilton has been a potential NHL destination. When Jim Balsillie came along and tried to strong arm a relocation of Nashville and then Phoenix, the idea of Hamilton in the NHL hit new heights. He even started selling season-ticket packages before he had acquired the team. But, Copps Coliseum (or FirstOntario Centre) may be too antiquated for the NHL now, when you consider the new buildings going up and the newer ones potentially on the way. Hamilton’s arena seats 17,383 for hockey, but the market may interfere with two long-standing NHL teams. One is Toronto, but the bigger sticking point is how a Hamilton team might impact the Buffalo Sabres. That franchise has had its own problems in the past and though the arrival of a Hamilton NHL team wouldn’t automatically doom Buffalo, it may not be something the league would want to risk. Hamilton is becoming a longer shot to land an NHL team with each passing year – right now, it’s as likely to get a big-league hockey team as Saskatoon.