By choosing the correct cities as targets and setting up new franchises for success, Gary Bettman and the NHL are doing expansion the right way.
When the NHL began its expansion process back in 2015, there was some skepticism. When the decision was made in 2016 to put a team in Las Vegas, the doubt grew tenfold.
To be fair, there were multiple reasons not to buy directly into the idea of ice hockey in Vegas. As Hemal Jhaveri of USA Today pointed out, Vegas was a professional sports unknown in a tourism-focused city in the desert. Which is not exactly a traditional hockey market.
Of course, every hockey fan knows what happened next. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights took the NHL by storm, winning the Pacific Division before dropping only three games in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In doing so, they became the first expansion team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season since the 1968 St. Louis Blues. This storyline seems to have helped to bring new fans and eyes to the product, since this year’s Stanley Cup Finals had the best TV ratings in three years.
Of course, the Golden Knights’ success has not come without controversy. To some NHL fans, the fact that an expansion team can have this much success implies that expansion was done wrong.
Since Vegas’s magical run started, much of the blame seems to have fallen on the expansion draft, and for good reason. The expansion draft rules in 2017 left more talent available than in previous drafts, including in 1998.
In addition, there is still a portion of the NHL audience that believes the league is choosing the wrong spots for expansion. While Vegas and now Seattle have been named for expansion, more traditional hockey markets such as Quebec City have been left behind.
Although some NHL fans may not like how the league has gone about with expansion, Gary Bettman and the owners have followed the process in a way that will grow the sport and build new fanbases. In doing so, the NHL is, in fact, doing expansion correctly.
The NHL is Choosing the Right Cities to Expand to
When Gary Bettman was first hired as commissioner from the NBA in 1993, he specifically pointed outgrowing the game of hockey as one of his goals:
“We want to expand our fan base,” he said, “but we don’t want to turn off our existing fans.” If the N.H.L. imitates the N.B.A., Bettman said, that’s fine “if that means to be more successful and go through a boom period.”
In 1993, the NHL had just announced an expansion to 26 teams, with new franchises being added to Florida and Anaheim. In the years since, new teams were added to Atlanta, Minnesota, Columbus, Nashville and Vegas.
In addition, some teams were relocated farther south, namely the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, and the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh (Carolina).
With the exceptions of Minnesota and Colorado, none of these locations are traditional hockey markets. This did not sit well with the “hockey purists” like Don Cherry, who have continued to push for the NHL to return to places like Quebec City.
However, there are multiple reasons why it would not make sense for the NHL to return to Quebec City. Setting aside economic issues (such as the weakness of the Canadian Dollar) and demographics, there is little for the league to gain from expanding there.
Quebec City would be an easy get for the NHL. They are a backup plan if the league’s risks do not turn out OK, just as Winnipeg was. Adding an expansion team to Quebec City, Hartford, Toronto, etc. would be a low-risk low-reward proposition.
On the other hand, adding teams to non-traditional cities such as Phoenix, Houston and Vegas is a substantial risk, but also offers potential for large rewards. These are much larger cities with good economies that could accommodate a hockey team tomorrow, if necessary.
For the most part, the league’s risks have paid off. Dallas, Anaheim, Tampa Bay and Vegas have all proven that they are capable of supporting a hockey team. Nashville has even earned a reputation as a hockey town and one of the most electric atmospheres in the league.
Now, there have obviously been instances where the NHL has not succeeded. Atlanta failed to support hockey twice, while the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes are constantly being mentioned in relocation talks due to poor attendance.
Despite these struggles, however, both franchises have given the league reason to believe in their future. Auston Matthews, one of the biggest young stars in hockey, grew up cheering for the Coyotes, while Shayne Gostisbehere of the Flyers was a Panthers fan.
This is without even mentioning the incredible impact teams like the Golden Knights and Panthers have had on their community after tragedies such as the Vegas shooting and the Parkland high school shooting.
Like it or not, the NHL is slowly growing the game of hockey in non-traditional markets by expanding to these cities and keeping the teams there. It is perhaps the most crucial reason expansion has been a success, but there is another factor that is necessary.
The NHL is Setting New Teams Up for Success
As mentioned, one of the complaints about the inaugural season for Vegas was that they were aided massively by the expansion rules which left more talent available for the team than in previous drafts.
The response to this line of thinking has been to point out how some of Vegas’s best players were actually trade acquisitions, such as William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore, as well as to look back at how few people believed Vegas would be any good at the start of the year.
Whatever the reason was that Vegas was so successful so soon, many NHL fans began to sour on the new team during their run to the Cup. After all, years of precedent had shown that expansion teams should struggle in their first season.
Regardless of what fans of other teams thought, however, one of the reasons hockey has worked so well in Vegas is because the team has been successful. The fanbase may have grown regardless of what happened this year, but certainly not to the scale it already has.
Compare the Vegas expansion with the two teams that entered the league in 1974, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts. The Capitals ended up having the worst season in NHL history in their first year, while the Scouts were not much better.
The effect of that poor start was clear: the Scouts were moved to Colorado and then New Jersey, while the Capitals were on the brink of leaving Washington DC less than ten years later.
Similarly, consider the three teams detractors point to when talking about the NHL’s failure in non-traditional markets – Phoenix, Florida and Atlanta. Neither the Coyotes nor Panthers have had any sort of sustained success that could build a large, dedicated fanbase.
The Atlanta Thrashers, meanwhile, were so bad that they only made the postseason once before relocating. In that one postseason appearance, they failed to win a game.
The common thread through these stories is that a franchise will struggle in a new location if they fail to achieve success somewhat early on. Because of that, the NHL should be celebrated, not criticized, for creating an expansion system that allowed the Golden Knights to do what they did.
It may be a tough sell for fans of teams that have struggled to reach the mountaintop to see an expansion team do it, but at the end of the day, a new team doing well is what is best for growing the game in that team’s city.
The NHL Should Keep Following this Blueprint
As it stands, there does not seem to be a clear end to expansion for the NHL. With the Seattle team expected to debut soon, and no changes expected to their expansion draft rules, the league should be confident that they will see a similar success story to Las Vegas.
Beyond that, there is less clarity. There is the obvious Quebec City speculation, as well as talks about a new team in Houston or a return to Kansas City. There is also always the possibility of trying Atlanta again, or perhaps even leaving North America.
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The NHL should continue to try and tap into these non-traditional hockey markets, and do their best to set new teams up for success. Doing so will help to grow the sport and ensure a better product on the ice than the league has ever seen.
Fans, in turn, should support the league in their expansion endeavours, regardless of their doubts on hockey in the south or their disapproval of teams being so good so early. The NHL does not do everything right, but expansion is one thing they are acing.