It began when Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
This was the first in a series of events that led to the NHL’s presence in the southern United States.
Bruce McNall, then owner of the Kings, was instrumental in hiring NBA Senior Vice President Gary Bettman to be the commissioner of the National Hockey League. Any hockey fan can tell you what happened next.
The NHL expanded to the south with teams that included the Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers, while franchises in Hartford and Winnipeg relocated to North Carolina and Arizona. Some NHL teams have worked out well in the south, others, like the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona, have not.
The NHL currently owns the Phoenix Coyotes, a franchise that has been in financial turmoil for years. So it was obviously good for the league when their team eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks in 6 games. It marked the first playoff series win for the Coyotes since relocating from Winnipeg.
While Chicago is a big market, there is no doubt the NHL is delighted with the Coyotes' win. The NHL is determined to find an owner to keep the team in Arizona. A deep playoff run might help their chances of finding an owner who meets their requirements.
The Detroit Red Wings are a popular team worldwide but, again, the NHL has to be happy with the Nashville Predators' series win as it will likely boost their popularity in Tennessee. For a team that was once thought to be on the move north, the more they win the better.
The Los Angeles Kings' series win over the Vancouver Canucks was a huge upset and a huge win for the NHL. Fans in Vancouver will always flock to arenas and turn on their televisions to watch hockey. Fans in California are only likely to do so if the team is winning. So it’s not unfair to suggest that this Kings squad could be the biggest thing for hockey in L.A. since Wayne Gretzky.
Teams in Canada and in traditional American markets will always have a strong following, win or lose. Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs since the lockout. Some American teams in the south, however, need to win in order to attract fans. Take, for example, the failed Atlanta Thrashers.
The more fans that buy tickets, merchandise and watch games on television, the more revenue for the league. As more people watch games, more money can be made from broadcasting contracts and advertising. It’s therefore good for the NHL that southern teams are winning and attracting the attention of fans.
Gary Bettman will never admit he was wrong to put so many teams in southern parts of America. Even in the case of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise, the second Atlanta-based team to relocate to Canada.
So for those franchises that don’t flourish in the south, Bettman and the league will likely continue to do everything they can to keep them there.
The Tampa Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks have all won the Stanley Cup. What southern team is next, the Los Angeles Kings? Or maybe the Phoenix Coyotes?