NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there’s no plan for the league to expand, but he didn’t exactly pour water on the idea either.
During his remarks at the end of the league’s board of governors meeting, Bettman insisted a decision hadn’t even been made about going from 30 teams to potentially 32. He did say the NHL was getting plenty of expressions of interest, adding that “when people want to talk to us, we listen.”
Bettman also laid out three factors that he called “show-stoppers” when considering potential destinations.
“You want to understand the market and can it support NHL hockey,” Bettman said. “Would it be a good addition to the league? Two, you’ve got to have an arena. And three, and perhaps most important, it comes down to ownership. At 10,000 feet, those are the criteria you’re dealing with.”
With all that in mind and considering the money that would pour in from expansion fees, it’s worth considering which cities could be in line if and when the NHL commits to expansion. Seattle and Quebec City are the front-runners, but other places like Toronto, Hamilton, Kansas City and Portland, Ore., are in the discussion.
“I think there’s a lot of good markets,” said Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin, a prospective owner for an expansion team in Seattle. “I think that the league has done well with their TV deals. I think they’re focused. I think that they have some good ownership now, some stable ownership. I think it’s better than it has been in the last eight or nine years. I think it’s on a good trajectory, it’s going up.”
When the Phoenix Coyotes were in danger of moving, everything that came out publicly from the league was smartly in support of keeping the team in Glendale, Ariz. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly espoused the virtues of the market that the new Canadian-led ownership group is trying to get the most out of now.
But the NHL had to do its homework on potential relocation options, and by all accounts Seattle fared the best. That would have to come with the promise of a new building because Key Arena is a bad fit for hockey and not a long-term option.
Seattle has been willing to discuss plans for a state-of-the-art facility, but that could be contingent on bringing an NBA team along as another tenant, even if that’s a few years later.
Levin, who founded the AHL’s Wolves in 1994, said building rinks around the area for youth hockey would be crucial, too.
The arena asterisk doesn’t detract from Seattle’s spot as the most likely location for NHL expansion. The local economy is booming, and intense fan interest in the NFL’s Seahawks and Major League Soccer’s Sounders gives the indication that there’s an appetite for another team even after the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.
“I think it’s San Jose on steroids,” Levin said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “It’s a very good market, a very good sports market and they do a great job with their teams. Currently there’s no winter sports and it looks like basketball won’t be there for a few years, anyway, and I think you’d have a few years to develop a market. I think that if somebody really wanted to develop a hockey team could do well there, but it’s going to cost a lot of money and potentially a lot of time.”
Bettman wants an owner who’s willing to devote time and money, so in this case Seattle would be in excellent shape. Levin offered around $500-million in an attempt to buy the Montreal Canadiens in 2009 only to be outbid by about $60-million by Geoff Molson, and he could afford the expansion fee that could range between $250-million and $400-million.
Beyond that, his priority is to build a winning franchise.