NHL's Expansion: Examining First 7 New Markets of Gary Bettman Era

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIJune 11, 2012

NHL's Expansion: Examining First 7 New Markets of Gary Bettman Era

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    Gary Bettman is an absolute pariah in Canada. There are a lot of good reasons for that that have been gone over ad nauseum long before I addressed them in my sixth article for this site.

    But give credit where credit is due. The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs have received the best ratings in years. According to Jeff Z. Klein in a February 17 New York Times piece, this is especially evident in "non-traditional" hockey markets:

    "Hockey has seen explosive growth in the United States in the last few years, especially in historically nontraditional hockey hotbeds,” said Brian Burke, general manager of the United States men’s Olympic team and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We will be dropping that label soon, very soon, I believe. We have elite athletes playing hockey in almost every state now."

    This broader base is at least partially responsible for the success of Team USA in the World Championships and Olympics in recent years, as well as for the nation producing one in five NHL players.

    Bettman cultivated expansion or relocation in Dallas, Raleigh, Denver, San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa, Anaheim, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and the Twin Cities. Only Ottawa and the Twin Cities were traditional markets.

    But does that mean expansion has worked? For a long time, bringing ice hockey to warm climates seemed as useless as sending palm trees to the Canadian cities passed over for those teams.

    The NHL could thrive with fewer American players as long as the talent level and fan interest does not suffer. There is no doubt worldwide interest in the game has been growing for some time (due in part to his insistence that NHL players be involved in the Olympics), while the NHL has struggled to be profitable.

    So how much of the new success this year and the struggles in the past can be tied to expansion? The best way is to look at each of the cities for on-ice and business success, and part one looks at new markets cultivated in his first three-plus years...

San Jose Sharks

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    The San Jose Sharks are the only team that had a full season under its belt before Gary Bettman took over in 1993. They were in the middle of their second terrible season, with the poorest two-season record in NHL history.

    In the 18 full seasons since he took the helm, San Jose has missed the playoffs just three times. They have six division titles, three conference finals appearances, a Presidents' Trophy and the second-best record since the lockout.

    On the business side, the building they moved into months after Bettman was hired is routinely sold out and frequently viewed as the loudest in the NHL. Thus, they have been able to afford one of the NHL's 10 highest payrolls for the bulk of the post-lockout era.

Ottawa Senators

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    Gary Bettman became commissioner during the Ottawa Senators' first season. This was nowhere near the first time the NHL expanded into the capital city of the nation that created the game, and a bankruptcy filing less than a decade into this incarnation threatened to make them a failure.

    However, hockey is once again profitable in Ottawa. The city hosted the 2012 NHL All-Star Game and fan interest is as high as it has been in years.

    They have had on-ice success, too. They have missed the playoffs only twice in the past 14 seasons and have even made a Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning were the only other team on this list to begin play in a new city before Gary Bettman took over as NHL Commissioner, starting months before Bettman.

    They struggled in the '90s but flourished under new ownership in the new millennium. With the help of No. 1 pick Vincent Lecavalier and the great leadership of Dave Andreychuk, they won Lord Stanley's Cup in 2004 and held the title of NHL champions for two years because of the lockout.

    Since then, they have had two quick exits from the playoffs and missed the postseason four times during a period of ownership transition. But they came within one goal of beating the eventual champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals in 2011.

    That success has helped them cultivate a fanbase. However, given the lack of successful sports stories in the market over the last decade, the NHL would like to see a more revenue-generating franchise than one with the instability of three owners in that time.

Dallas Stars

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    One of the first controversial moves completed during Gary Bettman's first year as commissioner was not an expansion, but a relocation.

    The writing was on the wall (or off the jersey) over in the State of Hockey when Minnesota dropped "North" from their team name. The team was sold and the new owners moved it to Dallas.

    Comparing a relocated team to an expansion is not really appropriate. The best determinant of the success of the move is to compare the results of the same franchise in its two markets. Since the same franchise failed in Minnesota and eventually declared bankruptcy in Dallas, only on-ice results can differentiate the two.

    The Stars were in Minnesota for 26 seasons and have been in Dallas for 19 (one missing from the lockout). When they had the disadvantage of being an expansion team, they had the advantage of being in a 12-team league that placed eight teams in the playoffs.

    In Minnesota, they had 17 playoff appearances to 12 in Dallas, a slightly higher percentage. But the fact that both teams won exactly 14 series and made it to the Stanley Cup Final twice gives Dallas the edge, even if the only title in franchise history is tainted.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

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    In Gary Bettman's first full season as NHL Commissioner, Anaheim was awarded a franchise.

    The owner was Disney, who also owned ABC and ESPN, broadcast companies that marketed the league at the time. They named them the Mighty Ducks after their movie starring the only Estevez who uses his real name, Emilio (as opposed to Carlos Irwin or Ramon Antonio Gerardo, who use the surname Sheen).

    So who cares how ridiculous it makes the league look to have a team named after a kid's movie? You would never see Paramount Pictures buy an expansion baseball team called the Bad News Bears, but as long as the one who wants to do it is helping market a game a distant fourth in American interest...

    (Of course, it is still not as bad as the Mighty Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Formerly Known as the Anaheim Angels and Before That California Angels...)

    In that first decade, Anaheim had the benefit of exciting players like Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne (now on his third decade). They did get some fans, but they made the playoffs just twice in their first nine seasons, with only one series win.

    The next year, they pushed the Stanley Cup Final the distance as a No. 7 seed behind Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. But the team fell to below .500 the following season and was sold.

    New ownership showed they were more serious about their business. Within two years, they had changed the name to the Anaheim Ducks and won Lord Stanley's Cup. Despite having only one division title, they are 7-3 in playoff series under new ownership.

Florida Panthers

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    The other city to get a new team in Gary Bettman's first full year as NHL Commissioner was also below the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, Miami is the city furthest south in the continental United States.

    At first, the Florida Panthers looked to validate Bettman's vision. It took them only until their third season to win their conference. Though they seemed more of a hot team than a great one (reinforced by being swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Colorado Avalanche), the future was bright.

    Unfortunately for potential Panthers fans, there were plenty of other things in the Miami area to draw people's attention. Hence, they moved on once their team proceeded to make the playoffs just two more times over the next 14 seasons.

    While the 2012 Southeast Division championship ended a 10-season playoff drought, local fan support leaned heavily toward the Miami Heat of the NBA. Undaunted, the team took a 2-1 series lead largely by beating possibly the best penalty kill in NHL history.

    However, the Panthers lost the last three contests and were out of the playoffs before the Heat began them. Television ratings were pretty good and the tickets sold, but neither as well as one might expect after that many years away. 

    This shows they have not succeeded in creating a base of support any more than they have won in the playoffs.

Colorado Avalanche

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    When the Colorado Avalanche relocated from Quebec City in 1995, it was the third year of Gary Bettman's tenure as NHL Commissioner. Denver was a logical market because it had only basketball and football to compete with, was in a major city and, geographically, it was around winter sports enthusiasts.

    It also helped that they had the benefit of the Quebec Nordiques trade of Eric Lindros to build on. They received a package that would eventually net seven NHL players, and the five they had playing in their first season in Denver won the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

    They got another in 2001 in the last season for one of the great blue-liners in NHL history, Ray Bourque. They have not had as much success of late, being relegated to the role of a bubble team in the seasons following the lockout.

    However, only 10 percent of the league has two Stanley Cup titles in the 16 seasons the Avs have been in Colorado. And it is two more than they got in Quebec City.

    Avs fans have been treated to not only success, but great players like Bourque, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Patrick Roy. The fanbase is cemented for good reason, and Bettman looks like a genius, even though it was a 20-year-old team in Philadelphia that made it happen.