On Wednesday, the NHL's Board of Governors voted to authorize a formal process to evaluate expansion proposals. That's a complicated way of saying: We could get a new city with professional hockey.
At this stage, the NHL is technically just putting out a call for bids -- it hasn't officially declared it will indeed expand, or by how many teams if it does. But with the conferences currently unbalanced -- 16 teams in the East, and 14 in the West -- the smart money is on two cities ultimately landing franchises. The league will start accepting applications on July 6, and parties interested in an expansion team will have until August 10 to submit.
Gary Bettman has said that the minimum expansion fee it would accept is $500 million, so with a billion dollars to be made on two new franchises, it's easy to understand why expansion appeals to the league, even if it means diluting the overall quality of play. Of course, the NHL's track record with expansion isn't perfect. The Thrashers, for instance, lasted eleven seasons in Atlanta before relocating to Winnipeg. And in South Florida, the owners of the Panthers have said that the franchise has been losing money for more than a decade. (According to Forbes, they're currently the least valuable franchise in the league.)
So where should the NHL expand, if it's looking to give its newest franchise or franchises a chance to succeed? Here, we've ranked some of the most likely options, in order of how ideal they are to host an NHL team -- from most ideal to least.
Seattle has an awful lot going for it: It's a northern city not far from the Canadian border, so there shouldn't be a learning curve for locals like when the NHL expands into to non-traditional, Southern markets. Seattle's already a solid sports town, and perhaps more importantly, it's embraced the city's Major League Soccer team (the Sounders) in a big way. The NHL's profile is even higher than MLS, so the odds are good that they'll take to a hometown hockey team -- especially after losing their beloved Sonics. The biggest hurdle for Seattle is that a modern arena would need to be built in order to land a team, and that's proven difficult thus far. (At the moment, two different developers have arena proposals.)
The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area
I'd wager that if the NHL expands by two teams, neither of them will wind up in Ontario. (At the moment, there's far more buzz about some of the other potential destinations on this list.) But if the league's looking for a slam-dunk in Canada, it'll put a team here. Hamilton, which is about 50 miles from Toronto, ran a very successful season-ticket drive several years back when it looked like the Predators might move there. But more important than that particular campaign are the population figures: Toronto is Canada's largest city, and hockey's already a religion in the area. This is, of course, Maple Leafs country, but fans are as frustrated as ever with the Leafs, and if the New York Metropolitan area can support three teams, Toronto should be able support two. Building (i.e., funding) an arena is a different story, but as an ideal NHL market, this is the league's best bet north of the border.
Quebec has an NHL-caliber arena already under construction, and it'll be completed long before a potential expansion team is ready to move in. They also have a core group of passionate fans that is desperate for the city, which lost the Nordiques in 1995, to get a new team. Those fans have been known to invade other NHL arenas by the hundreds to show they can support a franchise and draw attention to their cause. "It's a way to show Gary Bettman how much we love hockey in Quebec City," one of the organizers of the rallies told me at one such event in Newark in 2012. "It's not to make pressure on him, or trying to get an immediate response from him. We just want to do it for the love of hockey." The Nordiques cited financial struggles and a weak Canadian dollar when they moved to Colorado. The salary cap has evened the playing field somewhat -- rich teams can only outspend poor teams by so much now -- but Quebec remains a relatively small city, with around half a million people. The big question then: Does fan passion make up for a relatively small market size?
An NHL team in Las Vegas seems almost inevitable at this point, but it remains, appropriately, a gamble. Las Vegas ranks 41st in size among U.S. TV markets, with only one current NHL city (Buffalo) behind it. Vegas is actually bigger than Quebec -- but in Quebec, hockey is part of the cultural fabric. In the desert, not so much -- or at least, not yet. Fans in Vegas will have to prove they'll embrace the sport, since the tourist crowd alone won't be able to keep the team going. (Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, has said as much. "You can't depend on tourists to fill your building every night, even rich ones," he said last fall. "You really need a local fan base.") A Vegas proposal has a few things going for it: A suitable arena is already under construction, and the NHL would make a huge splash by becoming the first major pro league to put a team there. (Being the first team in town would likely also help with winning fans, as locals desperate for any major pro team would be inclined to support it.) Perhaps most encouraging is the success of the season-ticket drive organized by potential owner Bill Foley. Daly, the deputy commissioner, said earlier this year that, "The response in Las Vegas has been very impressive and certainly suggests that there is an ability to support a professional sports franchise and particularly an NHL franchise at this point in time."
An Oregonian columnist recently made the case for Portland as a potential destination for the Coyotes should they relocate, arguing that "We're too big a market to have only an NBA and MLS team. We're too hockey-ready to not seize the opportunity." The city has a suitable arena, though bringing the NHL to Portland may depend on whether Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the NBA's Trailblazers, feels like buying an NHL team. Hockey already has a presence in the city, with the junior hockey Winterhawks of the WHL. But if Seattle can sort out its arena issues, it appears to have the edge on Portland, and it seems unlikely that the NHL would add two teams in the Pacific Northwest at once.
The largest city in the United States without an NHL team has a decent hockey history, between the Gordie Howe-led Aeros of the WHA and the AHL team of the same name that called the city home for 19 years before leaving for Iowa in 2013. Plus: A study from earlier this year found that of all U.S. markets without an NHL franchise, Houston would have the greatest financial ability to support one. Indeed, Rockets owner Les Alexander once attempted to buy the Edmonton Oilers and move them to Houston, but unless he gets interested in the NHL again, it's unlikely the sport would return to Texas's largest city, as only an NHL team owned by Alexander is allowed to play in the Toyota Center, as per an agreement between the building and the Rockets. The lack of buzz around a potential team in Houston is likely enough to scare off the NHL, which will want to be sure about any potential expansion teams in warm-weather cities.
The city has an arena capable of hosting NHL games (and which has hosted pre-season games in the past). But even potential owners of a Kansas City-based NHL club have said the city isn't ready for such a thing. Down the line, if the city adds more ice rinks and youth leagues and can get people interested in the sport, that could change. For now, it's a long shot that the NHL will come here.
Sorry, "Brass Bonanza" fans … it's not happening.