It’s not a done deal yet, but Seattle seems close to a sure thing to be next in line for an NHL team. So, what does that mean for Quebec City, Houston and other NHL hopefuls?
It’s not set in stone and there are some yet-to-be-cleared hurdles, namely proof of interest through a season-ticket drive and a payout of $650 million for an expansion franchise, but the belief following Thursday’s meeting of the NHL’s board of governors is that the league will have a franchise in Seattle come the 2020-21 season.
As colleague Ken Campbell outlined earlier, the whole NHL-to-Seattle thing has appeared to be a fait accompli for some time now, dating back to the past round of expansion, one which yielded the league its 31st franchise in the Vegas Golden Knights. When that round of expansion opened, many were of the opinion that Seattle would be among the cities to enter a bid, alongside Las Vegas and Quebec City. As we know now, however, that didn’t come to pass, in large part due the lack of an arena suitable for a team from one of the four major professional sports.
Seattle city council’s approval of a memorandum of understanding for a $600-million renovation of KeyArena earlier this week changed the landscape, though, reigniting talk that the NHL — as well as the NBA — could be on its way to Washington State. And after Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan signed off on the city council’s approval and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman green-lit a ticket drive and set the cost of acquiring an expansion franchise at $650 million, the league’s future, one that seemingly includes a 32nd franchise and 16th Western Conference club, appears that much more clear.
But now that Seattle looks to be next up, what happens to those cities who have also been in the mix for NHL action in recent years?
The former home of the Nordiques, who relocated to become the Colorado Avalanche, Quebec City has a lot going for it. It’s quite obviously a hockey-mad market, a city with NHL history and one that has proven it can support a franchise at the junior level. Though attendance has dipped in recent years and the current average of 8,105 is the lowest in more than a decade, the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts have averaged more than 10,000 fans per home game over the past decade. But maybe the biggest asset for Quebec City is their building. The Videotron Centre, which opened in September 2015, is a state-of-the-art arena, one readymade to host professional sports and one that has, with pre-season games being hosted there in the past.
The issue, however, is that while no one doubts the drawing power, the size of the market is a concern. At present, the least-populated NHL city is Winnipeg, estimated to be roughly 705,000 as of 2016. Quebec City’s estimated population in 2016 was 532,000. The two are similar sizes when considering metro areas, however, with Quebec City coming in at 800,000 and Winnipeg at 789,000. But if Winnipeg’s market was a concern in placing a team in Manitoba’s capital, you can rest assured the same concerns exist when it comes to Quebec’s capital.
There’s also the matter of trying to break into a market that is already mad for the Montreal Canadiens. Sure, there would be those whose loyalty would flip without a second thought, but splitting the market might not be in the league’s best interest. Finally, adding an expansion franchise in Quebec City doesn’t balance the conferences. Matter of fact, if we assume Seattle is good to go, a Quebec City expansion franchise would make the conferences uneven once again.
Realistically, Quebec City’s best chance is as a relocation option, but it would likely have to be an Eastern Conference team moving in order for it to work. With their recent sale, the Carolina Hurricanes aren’t really an option, either. It might be hard to hear, but Quebec City could end up playing the waiting game for quite some time.
Back when expansion discussions were at their zenith, around the time Vegas and Quebec City had submitted their bids, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is also the chairman of the board of governors, made some interesting comments about two cities he would love to see the NHL able to get into. The first was Seattle, which, you know, seems as good as gold right about now. The other was Houston. At the time, though, that was an impossibility because, to quote Jacobs’ comments to ESPN, “(the NHL) can’t get into that building.” The reason for that was former Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, who didn’t want an NHL team in Houston’s Toyota Center unless he owned it.
In mid-November, though, Alexander sold the team to Tilman Fertitta and the rumors of a future team in Houston have since intensified. Not without reason, mind you. Since purchasing the team, Fertitta has openly addressed his interest in bringing the NHL to Houston if it “makes sense for (the) organization,” and admitted that his group was evaluating and investigating potential opportunities. Reports surfaced that he had even met with officials from the NHL, including Bettman.
The NHL in Houston would make boatloads of sense, too. It’s the fourth-largest city in the United States and one of the country’s biggest television markets. It has a history with the game, hosting the AHL’s Houston Aeros for nearly two decades and was home to a WHA franchise of the same from 1972 to 1978. The biggest hurdle now, though, is finding a way to get a team into Houston given that Seattle has basically beaten them to the punch. That said, this is where relocation may come in. Though Bettman said there’s no interest in relocation at this time, a struggling franchise such as the Arizona Coyotes moving to Houston seems realistic if things don’t turn around. It keeps the conference balance intact, in the sunbelt and in a major television market. There’s potential for that to be a win, win and win from a business perspective.
Rarely at the front of mind but somehow always in the conversation, talk of relocation or expansion to Kansas City has cropped up, disappeared and cropped up again over the past several years. And if there was any reason for the good people of Kansas City to have hope that the NHL could once again come to town, giving new big-league life to a city that hosted the Scouts for two seasons in the mid-1970s, it’s summer comments from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly to ESPN. Asked by Dave Caldwell about the possibility of a team landing in Kansas City once again, Daly said in an email its “never been entirely ‘off our radar screen.’ ”
Here’s the rub, though: Kansas City comes with some concerns, the first of which is the market. While there’s no doubt a fair number of hockey fans within K.C., and the city has supported the ECHL’s Mavericks over the past several seasons, the prospective fan base would likely need to increase exponentially before the NHL is fawning over itself to put a team there. Second, there would need to be suitable ownership of such a franchise, and no one seemed willing to step up to the plate during the last round of expansion when there was a chance to take a shot at it. Granted, prospective owners likely knew the chances were slim, so the $10-million gamble wasn’t worth it.
If there is one thing working in Kansas City’s favor, however, it’s the Sprint Center. The decade-old, 17,500-seat arena that could host an NHL team any day of the week. Like Quebec City, though, the arena alone isn’t enough to make the league pull the trigger on expansion or relocation, and getting a second shot at hosting the NHL is likely predicated upon other organizations failing.
Invariably, when the conversation turns to relocation or expansion, Hamilton is brought up. Not shocking considering the numerous attempts over the years to bring a team to Steeltown. Let’s give it a brief rundown, shall we? Back in the 1980s, there was talk of the Colorado Rockies coming to town. In the 1990s, the city chased an expansion franchise, only for the bid to fall apart due to financial negotiations. In the 2000s, Jim Balsillie attempted to buy the Penguins, then the Predators, then the Coyotes, all with the intention of moving them to Hamilton. All three attempts failed. And there were reports in 2009 that the Thrashers could be heading to Hamilton, only for Atlanta to pack up in 2011 and become the Winnipeg Jets.
So, where does that leave Hamilton? Well, as far as a building goes, the city is in the same boat as Quebec City and Kansas City. That’s to say the FirstOntario Centre, which currently houses the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and boasts a capacity of more than 17,000, is a suitable home. Opened in 1985, the arena might need a few upgrades to get it looking like a more modern version of itself, but that it won’t have to be built from the ground up is a start. And when it comes to a market, Hamilton couldn’t ask for a better situation, as there’s no lack of diehard hockey fans in Southern Ontario.
The issue, though, is similar to that of Quebec City in that Hamilton’s proximity to another NHL market raises some questions. When it comes to a team in Hamilton, both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres might have something to say, as such an organization could eat into their potential drawing power. That doesn’t mean Hamilton is an absolute no-go, but it might have to be the right team at the right time for the NHL to make the move.