Expansion on the horizon? There was a bit of a frenzy last week when the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted at possible expansion teams.
That frenzy would only be for a moment. ‘We’re not in an expansion mode right now,’ Bettman would say in response to its suggestion.
“There continues to be a number of people, entities, and cities expressing interest in having an NHL franchise where they don’t have one, places like Atlanta, like Houston, like Quebec City.
‘But it’s not really something, at least right now, that’s anywhere close to the front burner for us.’
While it’s not a priority for the NHL right now, let’s take a look at what expansion has looked like for the NHL recently and if it’s actually worth there being new teams added.
A Brief History of Expansion
The current NHL is made up of 32 teams split across the Eastern and Western Conferences and four divisions for the Atlantic, Pacific, Metropolitan and Central. That’s 25 in the United States and seven in Canada.
The modern NHL as we know it, has grown largely around six main teams the ‘Original Six’ (1942 – 67); the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.
This would be followed by an explosion of expansion between the late 1960s and 1990s, adding 25 more teams and a membership fee which also mushroomed from $2M to a whopping $80M.
The next big expansion would come in 2000 with the inclusion of Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild.
In addition to cities paying to join the NHL franchise, the NHL has also relocated franchises, sometimes due to money issues.
In the last half decade, the NHL has seen the inclusion of two new teams which brought the NHL up to it’s current number; the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 and Seattle Kraken in 2021 (technically 2018).
It would cost the Golden Knight’s owners $500M for the expansion and the team would make their debut in the 2018/19 season.
Three big firsts would be achieved by the Knights. They’d become the first new team in the NHL since 2000, the first major sports franchise team to form in the city and first NHL expansion team to rack up a record number of wins in their debut season.
Then in 2018, the NHL Board of Governors would approve the Seattle Hockey Partners’ request for an expansion franchise and the Seattle Kraken would join for its first season in 2021.
While the Commissioner has put the kibosh on expansion for now, would it make sense to expand to any of the suggested cities?
It would seem odd for another expansion to Atlanta.
The city has already seen two short-lived NHL franchises; the Atlanta Flames and the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Atlanta Flames were created in response to the NHL’s conflict with the World Hockey Association but would only last eight years between 1972 and 1980.
While it managed to reach six of the eight season playoffs, it didn’t manage to win a Playoff series. Coupled with that, they only managed to draw in around 10 – 14,000 fans at its height in 1979-80.
The team would be sold and relocated to Calgary where it would later become the Calgary Flames.
A second attempt would be made with the Atlanta Thrashers back in 1999 and that would last just over a decade until 2011 before being bought and moved to Winnipeg.
The Thrashers would become the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The group behind the original Jets would move to Phoenix and form the Coyotes and later Arizona Coyotes.
A bid was made for Quebec City but there’s little known about its progress.
Quebec City is another City that has also hosted two previous teams that would later dissolve (former) or evolve into a modern team (latter); The Quebec Bulldogs (1878 – 1920) and the Quebec Nordiques (1972 – 1979 WHA / 1979 – 1995 NHL).
The latter team would move to Colorado in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche.
Recent analysis of a potential future NHL team in Quebec City, suggests that its audience market would be just slightly bigger than Winnipeg by Canadian proportions. However, others instead viewed that by US proportions, that was equivalent to the likes of Buffalo and Washington DC, home of Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals.
The NHL Commissioner had previously shown some interest in reviving an NHL franchise in the city as well as the hosting of an exhibition game between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.
In summer 2015, the Canadian media firm Quebecor announced and submitted its application for NHL expansion team, with the intention of recreating the Nordiques team.
An unfortunate drop in the value of the Canadian dollar deferred a decision on whether to approve their expansion.
The latest on this was from November 2015 when the Quebec premier François Legault, said he would speak with the NHL Commissioner to, ‘find out what we need to do to bring back the Nordiques’.
What about Houston?
Houston would be the most viable option from those suggested.
Not only has the city hosted winning teams like the Houston Skippers, Houston Apollos and Houston Aeros in the WHA and AHL, it would be one of the largest and most profitable markets.
Greater Houston is currently the base for 22 Fortune 500 companies. It’s just behind New York City with its 45.
There had also been previous interest in the purchase of an NHL team from the current owners of the NBA team, the Houston Rockets.
Businessman Les Alexander had attempted to buy the Edmonton Oilers back in 1998 but this had been stopped when a local consortium came together to match the offer.
The latest attempt came from billionaire businessman and current owner of the Houston Rockets and Toyota Center; Tilman Fertitta. He’d reportedly met with the NHL about hosting a tenant at the stadium of which an NHL team had been an option.
What might be exciting about having another Houston based NHL team, would be that it provides a geographical rivalry to the Dallas Stars.
Of course, these are just the three mentioned by Bettman in his comments, but there are a number of cities which have hosted teams before. Bids were explored and often rejected.
Which cities would you like to see an NHL expansion team?