Saturday, 18 June 2016

NHL Expansion: Hold Your Horses

NHL Expansion in Canada is one of those things that people go nuts over for in Canada. After 1996, Canada lost two of its smaller teams, the original Winnipeg Jets and the Québec Nordiques, and by 2003 the Sens were on the cusp of bankruptcy. Since then Canada regained the Jets after they relocated from Atlanta in 2011. When Jim Balsilie made the bid to get an NHL team in Hamilton of all places, the country got swept up in relocation & Make It Seven fever. We did get seven, but now seven isn't enough. Many, like me, want eight back.

Of course the lose of the teams was not because Bettman hates Canada, it's because in the mid 90s, the Canadian dollar was almost at 60 cents American, and with the Nordiques & Jets playing in outdated arenas with dwindling ownership support, fans were left out to dry when outside bids in the Southern US began popping up. Cities like Hampton Roads, Phoenix, Atlanta, Raleigh, were all vying for NHL teams, and all but one of these southern cities got one (Hampton Roads was passed over for Raleigh). That doesn't mean I like Bettman, but I think he gets a bad rep from Canadians because at the time he made the best business decision for the league. Since then he's kept the Coyotes and Hurricanes longer than he should have but none the less, if the reports of the NHL only selecting Las Vegas for expansion (which will be confirmed on Tuesday), then I feel this is the right move.

Of course this isn't only Bettman's say. The NHL board of governors & general managers have had to vote with 2/3 yes to get expansion approved. On top of that, the ownership group has had to prove they are able to sustain themselves through this entire process. Due to Phoenix, many Canadians are turned off completely by the idea of a hockey team in anywhere south of the Dixie Line with some exceptions. That's of course based on the emotions of losing the Jets to a lacklustre market without a replacement team for 15 years, but it's stupid at that. The NHL is a business, and it costs them and their partners a lot more money in relocation than it does hanging on to a crappy team. Many times, the ownership groups bares much of the losses rather than the league. Majority if not all of Southern NHL teams have worked at some point aside Phoenix, and only recently did Carolina turn sour.

Why is the NHL expanding? The league is doing the best it has done in quite a few years. The talent pool is high and the standards to win are higher because of this. This is the best the league has ever been financially, and markets like Nashville, Florida, Ottawa, Buffalo and Pittsburgh that were struggling are now doing better thanks to 45 year old Czech players and good management/ownership.  If there is more money to be made, the NHL wants to expand into those markets.

Why Las Vegas? The city/unincorporated community has never had a professional team in any of the major 5 North American sports leagues (refresher: MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA, MLS). The only professional teams to play there were the CFL's failed American expansion Las Vegas Posse and the AAA baseball Las Vegas 51s in the Pacific Coast league. That of course isn't including the vast amount of minor league teams and gimmick leagues like the Roller Hockey International's Las Vegas Flash & Coyotes (1994 & 1999 respectively) and the two Arena Football teams, of which only the Las Vegas Gladiators lasted more than in season, from 2002-2007. Best example of the gimmick teams are the Las Vegas Outlaws in the famously failed XFL or the Las Vegas Quicksilvers of the NASL in 1977. Aside from said Quicksilvers, Las Vegas lacked many sports teams, likely due to leagues not wanting to deal with Vegas's reputation at the time. Vegas's reputation has improved vastly since then.

If the announcement is confirming NHL expansion in Vegas on Tuesday, it could trigger an onslaught of expansion in the coming years. The NBA, while not currently expanding, may chose Las Vegas as a market if the NHL works. The Oakland Raiders have confirmed to be looking to Vegas & San Antonio as relocation markets if Oakland doesn't work (which it likely won't). This would mean the Nevada city would has as many pro teams as Toronto, and if they all work, it'll be very lucrative for all 3 leagues.

Honestly, I'm completely in favour of Vegas expansion, however, the whole point of this post is to say that Québec City will get a hockey team, they will be called the Nordiques and it will be through the relocation of the Carolina Hurricanes or Arizona Coyotes, and not through expansions for the simple reason that the Easter Conference is larger than the Western by 2 teams, and that needs to change through expansion. Seattle is the other Wester market likely to join once their arena is built or Key Arena is renovated. That being said, people running around blaming Bettman for hating Canada in the one case are idiots. They're not considering what's best for the league and just want a team as soon as possible. Consider this: Expansion teams suck. They do, and very rarely succeed right away or even for 2-3 years. If Carolina becomes Québec for 2017-18 or the next year, imagine how good that team will be and all the young stars now, in their mid 20s then, will help get Québec to the playoffs faster than the Vegas Black Knights will. I hope that Seattle, Vegas & Québec get their teams, and who knows, maybe KC will get a relocation team or another market opens up, but these things take time, and need to be done properly to prevent another Hamilton 2006 incident or KC 2007 fiasco from making relocation unfavourable to the league and expansion impossible. 9

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