NHL expansion is coming, just don’t hold your breath

GTA Centre Markam
Rendering of GTA Centre in Markham. (BBB Architects)

The NHL has gone a full 14 years without adding a single expansion team, which is the longest period without growth since the league ballooned from six to 12 teams in 1967. The business of hockey is stronger than it has ever been and hockey’s global reach has ensured that the league would be less watered down by adding teams than it has in the past.

So, yes, the NHL is ripe for expansion. That’s probably why a published report that the NHL is going to add four teams by 2017 was met with such enthusiasm. To follow some accounts, expansion to Las Vegas is a “done deal” despite the fact there is no ownership group in place yet and the league will have new teams in Las Vegas, Quebec City, Toronto and Seattle by the time it blows out the 100 candles on its birthday cake.

Your trusty correspondent does not profess to know exactly what’s going on at the board of governors level or what is going through commissioner Gary Bettman’s mind on this, but one thing is certain. This is not the way the NHL does business. For the NHL even to entertain the thought of adding or moving a team two things must firmly be in place first: a well-heeled ownership group that is committed to the long-term and an NHL building in which it can play. Las Vegas will have one of those things, Quebec City will have two. And the two most desired destinations in terms of revenues – Toronto and Seattle – have one between them. Toronto has a proposed ownership group, but no building.

So to suggest that anything is a slam-dunk in terms of expansion at this point is pure folly. The league has listened, as it always does, to pitches from cities that want teams and there is little doubt the matter has been discussed and explored. But it’s a far, far stretch from that to banking on four more teams being in the league in the next three years.

One person closely related with such things claims this might be a trial balloon floated out by the league, “to give some people a kick in the ass,” specifically those in Toronto and Seattle. They are the two strongest markets and have the most to offer the NHL in terms of revenues, but both have been stalled. Seattle doesn’t seem to want to move forward with the NHL until it secures an NBA franchise, something it has failed to do. Investor Chris Hansen, who is spearheading the NBA bid and the building that would come with it, wants no part of an NHL team, but would welcome one as a tenant.

Toronto, meanwhile, is sitting in limbo. The Town of Markham on the outskirts of the city looked poised to enter a public-private partnership to build a 21,000-seat arena, but in the end, the mayor could not rally enough support on council to provide a loan to help build a $325 million arena. The deal is dead for now, but there is a municipal election in eight weeks and should Frank Scarpitti be re-elected, he will almost certainly try to take another stab at getting a deal done.

So will a second team in Toronto and NHL teams in Seattle, Quebec City and Las Vegas ever become a reality? It is certainly possible within the next decade, but the guess is here that the NHL will be a 32-team league, not a 34-team outfit. Two of those cities – likely Toronto and Seattle would get expansion teams – while the other two would be landing spots for relocation. If you’re looking for possibilities, the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes cannot continue to lose millions of dollars and watch the cost of business continue to rise significantly as league-wide revenues go up. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes, while not as badly off as others, could also be candidates to move.

In the end, it continues to be and will always be about the money. Follow where the money is and that is where the NHL will go. I highly doubt Bettman loses sleep at night worrying about imbalance between east and west when it comes to teams. He’s more concerned with expansion fees and revenues, regardless of the city. These things can be worked out and to think the league would center its business plan around having things neat and tidy geographically might be a little naïve.

Expansion is almost certainly coming to the NHL. But the league has waited longer to do it than it has in almost 50 years of growth. It’s not going to rush this one.