How to truly decide which city deserves an NHL expansion team

How to truly decide which city deserves an NHL expansion team
August 27, 2014, 11:15 am
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Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City, Kansas City and Toronto have all been rumored as future homes of NHL teams. (USATSI)

Show us a fan base that 'needs' hockey and will be able to withstand the ebbs and flows of fortune.
Ray Ratto

The latest mid-level hysteria over National Hockey League Expansion is starting to subside, largely because it has occurred to most interested parties that whatever is or isn’t going to happen is years off -- and yes, probably more years than the three being cited for the realization of this grand plan.

But there is one issue that remains untouched in all this self-and-mutual flagellation over the artificial growing of the game -- whether the game is actually going to places where it can grow.

It all started with a Tony Gallagher column in the Vancouver Province, and spread to Howard Bloom of Sports Business News, who tweeted an addition.

In the one, expansion to Las Vegas was called “a done deal” by an unnamed but most assuredly impeccable source, with Seattle, Quebec City and Kansas City potential second cities.

In the second, the expansion would be four cities, done by 2017, with Toronto instead of Kansas City, with expansion fees totaling $1.4 billion, or nearly $47 million per existing team.

This created a flurry of grandiose plots, schemes, speculations and guesses about what would and would not happen, and the usual warm-milk denials from the NHL Commissionerette Bill Daly that “nothing is in the works.” A denial so inspiring, it should be said, that a number of people actually broke their femurs trying to stomp on its ineffectual nature.

But that’s part of the fun, too -- calling semi-powerful people liars and mountebanks while the real powers either do something big, small, or nothing whatsoever in search of a financial advantage that may or may not ever happen.

In short, this became in the space of roughly 16 hours another frantic exercise in gabbling about available cities and available arenas and available television markets and available billionaires, and that’s very satisfying in that look-at-us-guiding-big-shots way we have. It’s a little bit like David Mitchell’s Dragons In The North -- thinking big thoughts to no apparent end.

But nobody has come close to answering the real issue here -- whether enough people in Las Vegas or Seattle or Quebec City or Kansas City or Toronto actually want a new hockey team and are willing to pay NHL prices for it.

After all, Phoenix had an arena that needed a tenant, and then it got another one. Nobody comes. Miami has a nice arena and owners, and nobody comes to that one, either. Denver took a team, fell in love with it and then fell out of love with it. So did Dallas. Nashville is always an iffy proposition. The New York Islanders are already planning to move to Brooklyn, where the question of public desire remains unsettled.

And frankly, because that’s the hardest question to answer, it is the first one that needs to be asked.

In Quebec City, the assumption is that the entire town is so hot for hockey that it will not only recreate the Nordiques but also improve on the Canadio-Gallic experience. That assumption also exists in Toronto, except for those people who think that Toronto isn’t so much a hockey town as a Maple Leafs town.

I don’t know that any of the above positions are actually true, or false, for that matter. I do know that the entire matter of new teams for old has been turned on its head, as though “if we build it they will come” is now the new central pillar of modern civic planning.

I know that Seattle arena entrepreneur Chris Hansen wants an NBA team before an NHL team. I know Kansas City has been a weak stalking horse for dissatisfied franchises for decades. And I know that Las Vegas is a one-industry town whose industry -- gambling -- requires that people not be in arenas when they can be in casinos.

And I’d be keen to know if Seattle’s actual citizens, or Kansas City’s actual citizens, or especially Las Vegas’ actual citizens desire the National Hockey League all that much. The focus on arenas and owners and divisional alignments are all top-down issues, forgetting that the best way to make a bad franchise is to build top-down.

That’s how expansion works -- existing owners want money that other existing owners don’t want to share. Answer: Find new money. In this case, $1.4 billion in expansion fees, according to Bloom. That’s about $47 million per existing team, and no owner will ever turn down $47 million no matter what the potential benefit or damage to the game might be.

So we are left with the core question, the one that needs answering before, not after, all the others.

Who Asked For This?

Was it Gary Bettman and mid-market owners who need a quick payoff to pretend not to notice the financial inequities in the current structure? Was it arena operators both real and imagined in new cities who chase the dream of “being big league?” Was it politicians who know the temporary benefits of showing the voters something shiny and spangly every few months just to keep them distracted?

Or was it actually a truly underserved market that has been screaming for hockey all these years and has shown interest in local attendance and television ratings? The answer to that last one is clearly “no,” because if it were, people would be batting Milwaukee’s name around more liberally. They aren’t, therefore it isn’t.

So here’s a wacky idea. Let’s find out who really wants expansion on the customer level rather than the “how can we reach that last dollar bill in the corner of the room behind the armoire?” way, and then judge its validity accordingly.

Or do we have to point out Atlanta, which has died twice because the owners were poor, or slovenly, or didn’t tried to find the market and nurture, or not enough people in town give a sufficient damn?

In sum, don’t tell us who has spare concrete, or which bored billionaire wants a new play toy, or which political group gets points for bringing something new to town. Show us a fan base that “needs” hockey and will be able to withstand the ebbs and flows of fortune and good general managers and nitwit owners.

Then we’ll know where the NHL should go. And when. And most important, why.