Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the crowd before the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Rumor Mill: NHL Expansion

Since late Tuesday, rumors have been flying around about the NHL expanding.

Howard Bloom (@SportsBizNews) tweeted late Tuesday night that the NHL had finalized expansion to four new cities: Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and Toronto.

On Wednesday morning the NHL denied this claim.  While expansion is in the works, it is by no means a done deal.  Denial was reported first by the Toronto Star.

TVA sports, a Canadian French language sports channel reported NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly stated, “Ce n’est pas dans nos plans, il n’y a absolument rien de nouveau de ce côté,” or “This is not in our plans, there is absolutely nothing new from our side.”

Throughout this entire offseason rumors have been circulating that the NHL is looking to expand.  Four teams at once would be a massive expansion.  That’s more than half a division in the Western Conference!

The NHL will expand.  There is no doubt about it.  The NHL realigned conferences before the 2012-2013 season; creating four new divisions, two divisions in each conference.  This format is a foundation for the current playoff format: playoff teams are matched up with division

opponents in the first round, and there are two wild card spots, similar to the NFL playoffs.  The result of realignment left seven teams in each division of the Western Conference, and eight teams in each division of the Eastern Conference.

The NHL’s course of action was intentional, creating room for future expansion, and the eventuality of two new franchises filling the void.

Toronto is the biggest hotbed of hockey, they always want more.  It’s where the Hockey Hall of Fame is located.  Toronto is so hockey crazy it’s

May 6, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Fans gather in Maple Leaf Square outside of the Air Canada Centre prior to game three of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

May 6, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Fans gather in Maple Leaf Square outside of the Air Canada Centre prior to game three of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

impossible to get season tickets.  The Leafs waiting list is limited to 2,000 names, and they won’t add anymore because there is a 99% renewal rate for tickets.  Many fans leave their season tickets rights to family members in wills!   As a result, the Maple Leafs are most valued NHL franchise according to Forbes, with a vaule of 1.15 billion dollars.  And this has nothing to do with the team’s production, as this occurs during an era when the Leafs have made the playoffs once in the last ten years.

The Leafs are the only NHL team on Forbes list of top 50 sports franchises, ranking 26th.  In comparison the Los Angeles Dodgers rank #6 at a value of $2 billion, and the Lakers rank #15 valued at $1.35 billion.  Both L.A. teams rank second in terms of value in their respective sports (first place in MLB and NBA are New York City teams the Yankees and Knicks, valued at $2.5 billion and $1.4 billion respectively).  The L.A. Kings are valued at $450 million and rank 10th among NHL teams.

Philanthropist and co-founder of the Canadian company Research In Motion (BlackBerry) Jim Balsille has tried numerous times over the past decade to purchase an NHL franchise and move it to Hamilton, Ontario just 44 miles (or 71 Kilometers eh!) south of Toronto.  In 2006 Balsille made a bid to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins from Mario Lemieux.  In 2007, Balsille reached an agreement to purchase the Nashville Predators, but then owner Craig Leipold decided not to sign the sale.  In 2009, after the Phoenix Coyotes declared bankruptcy Balsille signed a debtor-in-financing agreement, basically agreeing to pay the Coyotes debts in preparation for rights of a sale.  Then the NHL stepped it and rejected Balsille’s bid.

Quebec City has wanted an NHL team back since the Quebec Nordiques moved and became the Colorado Avalanche, who won their first cup in their first year in Colorado during the 1995-1996 season.

Other rumors have started to gain traction.  Cities like Las Vegas, Seattle and Kansas City, as well as Toronto and Quebec City have all been

Jan 19, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks fans yell as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) waits for the snap during the first half of the 2013 NFC Championship football game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 19, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks fans yell as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) waits for the snap during the first half of the 2013 NFC Championship football game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

mentioned.  What it amounts to is Seattle is looking for an NBA team and has a new arena, so maybe they have room for the NHL.  Kansas City had an NHL team from 1974-1976.  The Kansas City Scouts then bounced around to Denver, and eventually New Jersey and are now known as the Devils.  But like Seattle it’s a location that’s sports crazy and could fit into the Western Conference.  Las Vegas is looking for any major sports team because they have the money to build, and sin city is always looking to be more attractive.

In any decision, but especially regarding Las Vegas, the NHL should tread carefully and be weary.

In an attempt to adapt to a fast moving world the NHL is making too many moves.  It’s a problem.  The NHL is adapting to a fast moving world.  The problem is they are making too many moves.  Constant change by it’s very nature is destabilizing.  Every offseason we deal with rumors of rule changes, draft lottery changes, playoff format changes, new franchises.  It’s overwhelming.  Bolstered by the competition in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, hockey is hotter than ever.  But is it a risk that the NHL is alienating it’s base of fans in an attempt to reach out to new markets?

Only time will tell, but it’s certainly something to ponder.  At the heart of the discussion, if they want a expansion to be successful, should be what’s best for the game, not for the owners.  Otherwise an expansion team could become another market that stalls, lags, and falls behind.  The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Arizona (Phoenix) Coyotes and Florida Panthers were once expansion teams.  Now they have rich histories.  But they have fallen by the wayside, while the NHL’s attention is on shiny new toys.

Progress can’t be stopped.  Whether it’s progress of the teams in the league getting closer in competition, or league expansion is up the NHL front office.

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