Expansion and relocation talk has been an ongoing discussion in the National Hockey League (NHL) for years. It seems that not an offseason goes by without the idea of an expansion team in Seattle or Las Vegas is thrown out to the hockey-starved general public. And in the past, it has been simply that: an idea without anything substantial backing it up. Lately, the talks have heated up again, but this time, it may hold water. Recent comments and actions by league management and prominent figures in the respective cities serve as evidence that an NHL expansion into Seattle or Las Vegas in the near future could be a very real possibility.
The recent restructuring of the league’s conferences struck many as an odd move at the time it happened. The restructuring saw the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets move to the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets move to the Western Conference. The moves made sense for their respective teams, as the travel distances between games for all teams involved were now much less. However, the restructuring left an imbalance between the two conferences. The West now only had 14 teams, while the East had 16. This meant, by simple math, 50 percent of Eastern Conference teams would make the playoffs, while 57 percent of Western Conference teams would do so. It was determined that the only way the NHL could justify such a blatant imbalance between conferences was an expansion to two cities in the near future, preferably in the Western United States.
Seattle seems to be the city that is closest to owning a new league franchise. Last month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley stated that the possibility of expanding to Seattle is there. Seattle has recently announced plans to build a new arena in the city’s SoDo district. The investment group funding the build has stated it is being done in the hopes that the NBA’s Seattle Sonics could return to the city after the team moved to Oklahoma City. Daley recently told the Seattle Times that when the arena is built, “Seattle will certainly be an intriguing marketplace from the league’s perspective.”
“I think we have a belief in the Pacific Northwest,” said Daley, citing the league’s Vancouver Canucks as a success story “the objective factors around the marketplace suggest Seattle would be a good hockey market.”
Las Vegas does not have nearly the same amount of imminent possibility news surrounding it that Seattle has. There is no comments from the commissioner or league management about Las Vegas as there is about Seattle. However, while the evidence is more subtle, it is still there. Since 1997, Las Vegas has hosted Frozen Fury, a preseason game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings in MGM Grand Garden Arena. It has sold out every year. The annual NHL Awards show, where they hand out the individual awards to players, coaches and management for accomplishments from the previous season, has been hosted in Las Vegas for years, though commissioner Gary Bettman insists it has nothing to do with league expansion. However, he is sending a mixed message, as a recent market research survey sent to hockey fans may have tipped his hand.
The survey asks hockey fans how likely they are to travel to certain cities over the next year, followed by a list that includes Seattle, Hartford and Las Vegas. That question is immediately followed by another: “If you were in those cities, and if they had an NBA or NHL team, would you go and see a game there?” The common theme among the cities listed is that none of them currently have a franchise from either league, meaning that expansion into any of those cities would leave that franchise as “first in the market”, a massive draw to sports fans living in those cities. The league’s one fear about an expansion to Las Vegas will not be an easy one to quell. The amount of casinos and gambling in the city serves as a great temptation to professional athletes, and any organization that will have to host 41 home games in the city will need to watch their players with a close eye and keep them on a tight leash.
Seattle and Las Vegas are not the only two teams that have been in the swirling rumors of league expansion. Canadian cities like Quebec and Kitchener have also been in the discussions, as well as the possibility of adding a second team to the Toronto area. But where there is smoke, there is likely fire, and recent evidence has the very real possibility of expanding the league to Seattle and Las Vegas surrounded by a smoke cloud so thick, the fire is almost certainly there.
This article is one in a daily series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
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