Ten Cities For the Next NHL Expansion

Image Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Another period of NHL expansion so soon? It’s entirely possible.

It’s no secret that the NHL struggled during the pandemic. Despite landing nice new TV contracts with ESPN and Turner Sports, the NHL continues to be a gate-driven league. When fans were no longer permitted to attend games, owners didn’t just lose out on sales from tickets, but also from merchandise, food and beverage, and parking. According to The Athletic, the NHL lost $3.6 billion as a result of having limited or no attendance at games. This was a massive financial blow to owners across the league, and some have undoubtedly spent the last year or so wondering how they can make money in a post-pandemic world.

That’s where expansion comes in. NHL insider Chris Johnston pitched the idea that continuing the league’s expansion would be a good way to recoup some financial capital, and the idea could be pitched as early as next year. While the idea of expansion might be strange due to the recent additions of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken, it does come with some merit. The expansion fees paid by Vegas and Seattle topped a combined $1 billion, and the early successes of both teams could allow potential owners to see the value in bringing a team to different cities. With the odds of relocation from teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Ottawa Senators looking slim, expansion may be the best bet for some cities to gain an NHL team for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, there are some logistical questions the NHL would have to work through if they decide to go forward with further expansion. The NHL and NFL are the only two major North American sports leagues that have 32 teams, and none have ever gone beyond that number. The typical scheduling format would also have to be adjusted to support more teams, meaning there is the possibility of having to add games or have some teams not play each other during certain seasons. On top of that, the playoff structure and divisions may have to be reworked, but those at least have some historical solutions (a return to a 1-8 seeding format for each conference and potentially six divisions with six teams each in a 36-team league sounds exciting, in my opinion.) Regardless, the NHL will have to come up with some answers to support more teams.

While there’s no confirmation of expansion, Johnston’s mention of it got me thinking on where a new NHL team would make sense. With any expansion plan likely going to include two or four teams, I wanted to compile a list of ten cities that could conceivably make reasonable claims about how they can support an NHL franchise. Obviously, every city is going to have some level of risk that has to be taken into consideration, but these ten have the means to make an NHL franchise thrive.

So which cities could we see land an NHL team in a few years? Let’s find out.

10. Salt Lake City, Utah

In theory, Salt Lake City would be a quality place to include an NHL team. The city has hosted a few “Frozen Fury” preseason games, including this year between the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights. There appears to be a dedicated ownership group in place to bring another sports team to Utah. Utah is one of America’s best locales for winter sports. Combine this with a growing population and a strong business environment, and Salt Lake City would be able to make a strong argument for themselves to support an NHL franchise.

That said, there are two major problems that have to be addressed. First off, while the Salt Lake City metro area is growing, its current population of an estimated 1.2 million people would make it the third-smallest NHL market behind Winnipeg and Buffalo. This problem can at least be addressed with having no competition in the area, but the second issue is far more severe. The Frozen Fury game this year had me take away one thing: Vivint Arena is simply not viable for an NHL team. Similar to the New York Islanders’ ill-fated tenure at the Barclays Center, Vivint Arena showed the problems with hockey in an arena designed near-exclusively for basketball. These problems include, but are not limited to, the larger ice surface reducing the number of available seats, terrible sight lines that block off portions of the rink, and poor lighting. Even worse, a Vegas goal that should have been disallowed still counted due to the arena not being fitted to have the equipment necessary to make the call. Salt Lake City could make do with the Maverik Center (home of the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies), but a seating capacity of a little over 10,000 people limits it to being a short-term option. If Utah wants to make a serious bid for an NHL team, it would have to come with plans for a new NHL-caliber arena.

Salt Lake City could make an NHL team work, but I have a feeling that other cities will have the edge on them. However, if the NHL is looking for more traditional markets out west, they could do a lot worse than landing in Utah.

9. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

If you’re looking for an outside-of-the-box Canadian option to place an NHL franchise, Saskatoon will likely be your destination of choice. Saskatchewan has a history of angling for an NHL team, with the most recent attempt coming from an ownership group to move the then-Phoenix Coyotes to the province in 2009. Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre has been home to NHL preseason games in the past and, while the city is currently planning to replace it with a similar arena, the process should likely mean a new arena is developed by the time an NHL team arrives. On top of this, Saskatchewan has a proud tradition of having one of the most passionate fanbases in all of Canada. Between Saskatoon hosting the Saskatchewan Rattlers (Canadian Elite Basketball League) and Regina’s Saskatchewan Roughriders (CFL), both teams have been able to build a loyal following throughout the province.

While there’s little reason to suggest an NHL team won’t be able to capture that same loyalty, there’s no denying that Saskatoon has a serious issue attached to it. Even if you were to combine the population of Saskatoon and Regina together, it would still amount to roughly 460,000 people. Needless to say, that would be the smallest market in the NHL by a healthy margin (the next-smallest would be Winnipeg at a little under 835,000 people, nearly double the count of Saskatoon and Regina). While the Jets were able to build a solid foundation almost immediately and avoid financial issues, the NHL might not be eager to try their luck with an even-smaller market. The last thing the NHL wants or needs is another franchise struggling financially and causing the league to bleed money (insert a casual jab at the Coyotes here).

There were a few ideas for a Canadian team outside of the obvious choices, such as Halifax or suburban Toronto. However, Saskatchewan’s rabid sports culture and ideas for an NHL-caliber arena make it the ideal choice for this regard.

8. San Diego, California

One of the most underrated options on this list, San Diego would be a solid landing spot for an NHL team. While the idea of another non-traditional hockey market might cause some eyerolls, San Diego does have a favorable comparison to Las Vegas when it comes to gaining an NHL franchise. Similar to Vegas, San Diego has a long history of minor league hockey to compensate for never having a major league team. This includes a connection to Willie O’Ree, who played for the original version of the San Diego Gulls in the old Western Hockey League. As for the modern version of the Gulls, their attendance numbers are typically high amongst AHL clubs, and their current home in Pechanga Arena has a capacity of just under 13,000, making it a viable short-term option until a new arena can be built.

Even though San Diego hockey fans might not be so bummed out about the Gulls leaving if an NHL team is on the horizon, there are still a couple of kinks a proposal will have to address. First of all, San Diego is within two hours of both Anaheim and Los Angeles, so they will be wary of a new competitor for the Southern California market. Secondly, San Diego has had bad luck in terms of keeping sports teams in the past, with both the Clippers and Chargers leaving the city due to greedy ownership. If the NHL is going to dedicate themselves to a San Diego team, they will want the city and any prospective owners to share that dedication.

With all due respect to the Padres, San Diego deserves to be more than just a one-sport city. With a viable hockey market already in place, the NHL can take advantage of this and build another potentially successful franchise in a non-traditional locale.

7. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

It feels like Hamilton has always been brought up in the discussion for an NHL team, and any new expansion will likely see them in the mix again. At some point or another, there were rumors of teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes moving to Hamilton, but all attempts at a deal were blocked. When potential expansion was discussed in 1991, Hamilton was considered for a team before being passed over in favor of Tampa Bay and Ottawa. While this history will be brought up again, Hamilton does have a few things going for it. While it’s population of 776,000 is small by NHL standards, that number can add up quickly due to the surrounding area. An NHL-ready arena in FirstOntario Centre will be renovated next summer, which should hopefully create a more modernized arena experience.

Geography, however, is more of a double-edged sword for any hope of an NHL team in Hamilton. While its close proximity to multiple NHL teams would reduce travel costs, being within 100 miles of Toronto and Buffalo could cause serious issues. While Toronto might be less opposed to the idea (there wouldn’t have been an arena plan in nearby Markham otherwise), a smaller market like Buffalo is more likely to block the move outright. On top of that, who’s going to step up and become an owner of a Hamilton club? BlackBerry founder Jim Balsillie was the architect of the deals to try and bring an NHL team to Hamilton, but he was blocked every single time. Chances are an ownership group would be involved, but will they be able to convince the NHL of Hamilton’s financial sustainability?

While Hamilton’s best chances of an NHL franchise may have passed them already, they will likely continue to be in the discussion. If the right ownership and concessions are in place, however, there may be a chance after all.

6. Hartford, Connecticut

For my justification on Hartford getting an NHL team, I could just type out “Hartford Whalers” and that would be more than enough. Alas, that explanation is a cop out, so here we go. Outside of the obvious return of the NHL to the city for the first time in what would likely be 30 years, there’s substance behind the argument to give Hartford a second crack at an NHL team. Hartford still has a deep connection to the Whalers, so a return to the NHL would certainly be met with open arms from a rabid fanbase. Even better for Hartford is, despite having a combined population of just over 250,000, the Hartford-New Haven area is just outside the top 30 media markets in the US. The return of the Whalers would also reignite some rivalries with teams like the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, and New York Rangers, as well as start a new rivalry with the Carolina Hurricanes (the rebranding of the original Whalers).

As perfect as a Whalers return would be, there are some factors to go against it. While Connecticut would almost certainly embrace the team, its top four cities (Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford) would combine for just over 540,000 people, making it the smallest market in the NHL. Another thing is that the XL Center, the current home of the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, is outdated by NHL standards. While a capacity of about 14,750 is nice, the arena was also built in 1975 for the original Whalers. Needless to say, the arena will either have to be renovated to provide a more modern fan experience or replaced outright by a newer arena.

Putting a team in Hartford would be a risk-reward proposition, banking on the Connecticut market and fanbase to carry the team to success. With trends in the positive direction at the moment, consider Hartford a sleeper if expansion is indeed confirmed.

5. Portland, Oregon

If the NHL is looking to continue its expansion out west, there won’t be a better or more logical option than Portland. Portland also has a deep hockey history, with the former Portland Rosebuds being one of the first non-Canadian teams to ever compete for the Stanley Cup. Currently, the city plays host to the Winterhawks in the WHL, a team that typically does well in terms of attendance. A Portland team would also continue to build a strong connection between the NHL and Pacific Northwest, and rivalries with the Seattle Kraken and Vancouver Canucks would begin almost immediately. The best part for Portland is that they are also one of the few cities that can boast an NHL-ready arena. The Winterhawks shared the Moda Center with the NBA’s Trail Blazers until 2021, and a capacity of around 18,300 and its easy accessibility from public transit make it an ideal location.

With all of this going for Portland, why is it ranked so low? First of all, I’m not sure how keen the NHL would be on putting a team in the exact same region as one of their latest expansion teams. The last thing they’d want is for the Kraken and the Portland team to cannibalize each other and cause damage to both franchises. Secondly, unlike the higher locations on this list, any push for an NHL team in Portland has been relatively muted. As great of an idea as bringing a team to Portland is, it’s all a moot point if no one’s willing to lead the charge and create support.

Portland is the right city at the right time for the NHL to continue its westward expansion. All it needs is the right person or group at the helm, and their chances of landing a team will skyrocket.

4. Milwaukee, Wisconsin

With hockey doing well in the Great Lakes region, it’s a little surprising to see one of the more hockey-oriented states in Wisconsin not represented at the NHL level. Milwaukee already has two successful sports franchises in the MLB’s Brewers and NBA’s Bucks, not to mention the Packers in nearby Green Bay. Wisconsin is also home to some of the NHL’s most recognizable stars, ranging from potential Hall of Famers Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel to one of the league’s brightest young players in Cole Caufield. Similar to Portland, Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum would make sense as a hockey arena, and the quick sellout of a preseason game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild highlight that there is a clear market here.

While the Blackhawks and Wild are fine with preseason games in Milwaukee, would either organization be all that eager to accept another competitor? Milwaukee would already be relocating an AHL team in the Admirals and, while I imagine the Nashville Predators may prefer their affiliate closer to home, why would the NHL go through the hassle if they don’t have to? Also, similar to Portland, a push for an NHL team in Milwaukee has been nowhere close to as strong as the teams higher on the list. Milwaukee would be a nice traditional market for the NHL to slide into, but they need someone willing to make a deal happen.

The idea of creating another hockey mecca in America should be appealing to the NHL. They have the chance to create that with a team in Milwaukee.

3. Kansas City, Missouri

The idea of an NHL team in Kansas City already has the Wayne Gretzky stamp of approval, so that alone gives the city some clout. The success and passionate fanbases of the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, as well as the Kansas Jayhawks in nearby Lawrence, indicate that their is a good market for another sports team. Even better is that a team in Kansas City would go roughly unopposed due to being on the opposite side of the state from the Blues, which would allow them to branch out to nearby states like Kansas and Nebraska. Similar to the teams higher up on this list, Kansas City also has an NHL-ready arena in the T-Mobile Center (not to be confused with Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena). The arena sold out a preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011, and a capacity of just over 17,500 people and a convenient location in the city center makes it ideal.

However, outside of Kansas City being a smaller market, the city struggled to build support for its first foray into the NHL. The Kansas City Scouts only lasted for two years before moving to Denver and being rebranded the Colorado Rockies, so that will be a factor that works against the city if it tries to enter the NHL again. Also, in what appears to be a trend at this range, Kansas City doesn’t have an active corporate or private interest in landing an NHL team. There has been at least some effort, but support has not been as substantial as the top two teams on this list.

Kansas City has the advantages of Milwaukee and Portland, but not the drawbacks of a competitor in close proximity. If the NHL chooses to expand, Kansas City would almost certainly be one of the favorites.

2. Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

There is no fanbase more passionate about wanting a return to the NHL than Quebec City is, and they stand out as the best possible chance for Canada to gain another team. Almost everything that has been made public so far has suggested that Quebec wants the return of the Nordiques, from the diehard fanbase to local politicians. There’s no doubt support would come from nearly every facet, including the corporate support that the NHL needs to see when considering expansion. Also working in Quebec City’s favor is the VideoTron Centre, a state-of-the-art arena that would seat approximately 18,250 people.

The only thing that may be working against Quebec City, outside of the obvious American-to-Canadian economic disparity, is the NHL’s interest in going back. While Winnipeg was able to make good on its second chance in the league, the NHL will need to see a similar support system in Quebec to know that a second team in the province is a good idea. It’s also telling that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has fought to keep struggling franchises such as the Atlanta Thrashers and Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes in the fold, denying reports of the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg weeks before the team was sold. While Bettman’s expansion into non-traditional markets have been successful at points, it’s also come at the expense of more sensible locations such as Quebec City.

The Winnipeg Jets’ revival has shown the hockey world that a successful small-market team in Canada can be successful in the NHL. With the lack of options out east and a seemingly endless assortment of opportunities to make money, the NHL would be foolish to deny Quebec City again if another round of expansion occurs.

1. Houston, Texas

Houston was my betting favorite to be where the Arizona Coyotes relocated to, but a team that they can call their own would work just as well. Every box the NHL is looking for in an expansion spot, Houston has checked. Largest city in America that doesn’t have an NHL team yet? Check. A potential owner who is dedicated to bringing the NHL to Houston? Check. An NHL-ready arena that can support a team from day one? Check.

The only real knock against Houston is the fact that it is more of a non-traditional market than the cities just behind them. Outside of the Houston Aeros in the WHA, there hasn’t been a major professional hockey team in the area, so there’s no real connection between sport and city. That said, three non-traditional markets (Carolina, Dallas, Vegas) rank in the top ten of average attendance so far this season, and four such markets (Vegas, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Dallas) are in the top ten of arena capacity. While there are some markets that have struggled to gain traction (hi, Arizona and Florida), the teams listed have shown that a market like Houston can and will embrace a team.

There’s no REASON for why the struggling franchises of the NHL haven’t put relocation to Houston on the table. There would be no EXCUSE if another round of expansion passes and Houston doesn’t have a new NHL franchise.

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