It feels as though the NHL's maybe-maybe not plans to expand the league have been kicked around more or less since the 2004-05 lockout with various markets trotted out as possibilities here and there.
Usually, though, you hear one city as being in the mix for a team. Kansas City or Milwaukee or something like that; nothing too far-flung or out of left field. Then a little more recently you started to hear Las Vegas added to the mix because of how intriguing the idea is, and then Quebec because they're building a rink without a tenant, and then in the past year or so Seattle because they almost stole the Coyotes from the desert. Occasionally, too, you'd hear Hamilton or Toronto mixed in there because Southern Ontario really could support another team with very little difficulty, but it was always said that the Leafs and/or Sabres would be able to tell the League “no” on that front.
But the second you brought up the word “expansion” to any hockey fan, you could see them visibly suppress their gag reflex. That's understandable to some extent. The League feels a little watered down with 30 teams as it is, in terms of talent, and not just because there are seemingly always going to be markets that don't draw fans unless they're on a lengthy winning streak (and in Glendale and Sunrise, even then it's an iffy proposition).
You have to remember that it wasn't so long ago — okay it's 16 years, I guess — that this league had just 26 teams in it, and the idea of hockey being played in Nashville, Winnipeg, and Columbus was likely seen as abhorrent to everyone who doesn't get invited to a Board of Governors meeting. (The Twin Cities, you'd be able to safely argue, was a market that really always needed hockey and just went without for a few years.)
People who think expansion is bad — and I'm really not sure if I'm one of them or not — look at what the NHL has done over the last two decades as not being particularly palatable. Teams in Winnipeg and Minnesota and Quebec City and Hartford moved to Phoenix and Dallas and Colorado and North Carolina, where the markets were largely unproven. (Colorado, in fact, was a failed market way back when, after two years in Kansas City produced 27 wins total.)
Around that time came Gary Bettman's Great Non-Traditional Expansion: San Jose, Tampa, Florida, and Anaheim in a three-year window, with Ottawa mixed in as a somewhat safer bet.
Does hockey work in those places? Gate receipts in San Jose are always sky high, Tampa sells out a lot, and Anaheim has success when it's successful. Florida might never draw, but it's hard to separate out the years of mismanagement from an overarching regional apathy. The case can certainly be made that of those four “Southern” teams, only Florida really deserves to have been moved at some point in the last 20-plus years. At least two of them are rousing successes.
I was between 8 and 10 years old when those teams came into the league and thus do not have a good perspective on how they were received. Knowing what I know now about the hockey community, my guess is, “Not well.”
To be kind, when the League added four teams from 1998-2000, there was plenty of skepticism — especially from a certain parallel which will go unmentioned — that this could work. In one instance, they were right; Atlanta isn't a good pro sports town regardless of the surface on which the game is being played; but if you add in ice and years of losing, then a hasty, almost-middle-of-the-night exodus to Winnipeg makes plenty of sense. No one, though, could argue hockey hasn't taken root in Nashville or regrown quickly in Minnesota (not that it needed the encouragement). The jury's still out on Columbus as well, and certainly giving them the draft and an All-Star Game for sticking with it and being good sports is undue; but again, there was all that losing.
And so that brings us to today, a time when expansion is more or less accepted as an inevitability. It seems the Coyotes saga — and that of the ludicrous “potential Oilers move” of a few years back — has gotten everyone pretty enamored of the idea of a Seattle team. The instant rivalry with Vancouver, the fact that it's a largely untapped market with deep enthusiasm for another marginalized North American sport (their Seattle Sounders are beloved on an absurd level, drawing 40,000-plus every weekend with ease, the most in Major League Soccer by nearly half). It's all so attractive.
Again, we all know it's going to happen at some point. It's just a matter of when, especially because the Western Conference is currently short two teams and with the league having just re-aligned, no one's getting moved back West any time soon.
These reports of a team in Las Vegas, then, made some kind of warped sense. They don't have a rink yet, they don't have an ownership group, but they do have a sizable population and lots of tourism dollars coming in, and just based on casino comps and suite rentals alone would likely “sell out” every night.
Do people in Vegas care about hockey all that much? The Wranglers, who voluntarily shut down operations for the season due to a lack of a venue, would probably argue that they do not. But then again drawing 4,500 fans or so every night puts them right in the middle of the pack (but a little below league average) in the ECHL, and isn't bad at all for low-level minor league hockey. Vegas is — you'll forgive the pun — a dicey market to enter, but if a Manifest-Destiny Western expansion must happen, then that's as good a place as any.
So in theory, that's two markets in the next four or five years, maybe, considering neither alleged franchise has anywhere to play these games actually built. In Seattle's case, it's not even approved. And that's not so far-fetched knowing what we know about this league.
But two more? And by 2017-18? That seems a bit much to most observers, even those in the Canadian media who would love to see someone Make It Nine. Toronto and Quebec City would print money — the latter, at least, as long as the Canadian dollar keeps pace with its American cousin — and therefore also make sense if certain hurdles can be cleared, but literally one of the four teams in question even has a rink under construction, or a prospective ownership group. And this is supposed to happen in less than three years?
The League is always going to deny expansion plans until they pull a big tarp off a completed rink somewhere and act like you should be surprised, so Bill Daly's “we have no expansion plans at this time” pabulum should come as no surprise whatsoever. But to go from everyone saying, “Eh, maybe Seattle,” to this is shocking for anyone.
“Done deal” in Vegas, before Seattle? Even more so.
(Though it should be noted that Dan Patrick, of all people, is now saying that the Vegas team could be a relocation, potentially of the sputtering Carolina franchise, rather than expansion. While that sounds perfectly reasonable, a 33-team league does not. Maybe the league tells one of the previously mentioned cities, at that point, to take a hike? Or maybe Florida moves too? Who knows.)
I've seen a lot of stuff about how there's going to be a significant dilution of talent if two teams come into the league, let alone four. Most NHL teams use guys who are below replacement level as it is, and therefore adding an extra 92 players to the mix (23 roster spots times four teams), plus minor-league call-ups and so on, probably gives you an extra 120 NHLers per year. On top of the 886 who played in it last year, that's 1,000 NHL players, and the world probably doesn't have 1,000 hockey players good enough to cut it at what is our current perception of the NHL quality.
But the league is changing, dramatically. More money is pouring into it, and might therefore attract a few more of those players who went overseas to make a living in the sport (whether that's Sweden, Germany, Russia, Finland, or another league) to stay in this hemisphere. And because of the ways in which analytics are now shaping all aspects of the game at the NHL level, you're likely going to see more talented AHL players come into the league to replace many of the bums that currently populate the bottom of big-league rosters. While 12.5 percent of the league does not fit into the “talentless” category, there's a reason 143 guys got fewer than 10 minutes a night last season.
There will, in the end, be a decline in overall team quality by increasing the league's size by 13 percent, but it almost certainly won't be as bad as people fear. Was the league that much better, talent-wise, before Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus and Atlanta came into the league? Doesn't seem like it. The world population is expanding all the time, you see, and since the Preds became the first team in that class of four to make the League, the number of hockey players worldwide has exploded.
USA Hockey enrollment has grown by some 98,000. Hockey Canada's by more than 154,000 (based on statistics here in comparison with the above IIHF numbers). The rest of the world has grown the game as well. So it's reasonable to assume that the guys in the AHL now are better than the guys in the AHL 17 years ago overall; if you're pulling that many more players, the quality is going to come up, even as the portion of the population playing the sport diminishes. In short: There are more good players now than ever, and thus the thinning talent pool shouldn't be a major point of concern.
Or you could look at it cynically, which is easy to do with a league as plainly avaricious about raking in cash as the NHL is. The fact of expansion by four teams within a three-year period could put literally billions of dollars into owners' pockets, and weirdly, expansion isn't considered hockey-related revenue, so they just pocket all of it and give none to the players.
Might it make the product a little worse for a while? Probably, and it probably also hurts owners' teams in the short term because a few expansion drafts in a short period of time can leave teams gutted. In the NHL of 2014, you need depth to succeed, so Chicago, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or San Jose having to potentially give up a few forwards and defensemen each might be onerous. In the 2000 expansion draft for Columbus and Minnesota, teams could protect either: a goalie, five D and nine forwards, or two goalies, three D, and seven forwards. That's a lot of talent to leave unprotected these days, and losing so many guys in quick succession like that might end up being some kind of difference-maker, especially for teams that have some amount of success but not necessarily true top-end players.
The question, then, is whether owners would be willing to pocket their share (tens of millions) in exchange for a potentially diminished on-ice product. Knowing what we know of these plutocrats, the answer would probably be yes.
But with that said, the NHL is a well-run business. It would not entertain any city — whether it's a hockey hotbed or Honolulu — as seriously as it apparently has here without there being some kind of financial benefit to it. Gary Bettman's job is to make money for owners, and owners likely wouldn't sign off on a team that they know immediately is going to end up receiving revenue sharing money, which essentially eats into their share of the expansion fees anyway; at least, if they're a power-wielding, money-making team like Toronto, Montreal, Boston or Detroit. If those clubs would sign off on the deal, then for the most part it seems likely that it would be in the League's best interest, at least in the short-term.
Given the way things are going with revenues, interest, attendance, and so on, it's not like the League has any reason to be even slightly pessimistic that hockey in North America is reaching some kind of ceiling for success. Maybe this pushes things past a breaking point. Maybe. But given the League's apparent willingness to keep shoveling money into Glendale for years and years, an for owners in other poor markets to hold on far longer than they reasonably should have (Atlanta, Sunrise), the kind of stubbornness that leads everyone into lockouts every eight or 10 years is the same extends to franchise health as well.
So while it's really easy to be skeptical that the League — which has done little to earn the benefit of the doubt in the last few years, as far as fans are concerned — can handle this kind of thing, this theoretical expansion will, at the very least, not hurt the product. It might even help. But that obviously remains to be seen.
In the interim, the quizzical looks are correct. These plans, now, really don't make a lot of sense.
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