The two divisions in the Western Conference have seven teams each, opposed to the Eastern Conference divisions that include eight clubs. Adding two more teams to expand the league's total to 32 is certainly a possibility under the new alignment.
One area that has garnered attention as a quality location for possible NHL expansion is the Pacific Northwest. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed the topic of expansion in regard to that region Tuesday.
I’m not sure we ever really addressed Seattle as a specific alternative in that process, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re very intrigued by the Pacific Northwest generally.
Going forward, I would expect that, to the extent expansion comes into the picture or relocation is needed, I’m sure the Pacific Northwest is going to get serious consideration.
It's no secret that Seattle and Portland are logical destinations for the NHL if it decides to expand in the near future. However, there will be stiff competition from Quebec City, which is one of Canada's best hockey markets with a group of fans dedicated to bringing an NHL team back to the area.
Here's a quick comparison of the two regions:
|Prior NHL Team||Nordiques (1979-95)||None||None|
|Current Hockey Team||Quebec Ramparts (QMJHL)||Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)||Portland Winterhawks (WHL)|
|Arena||Le Colisée||Key Arena||Rose Garden|
If you count the San Jose Sharks, the NHL has only one team in the Northwest region of the United States, which makes it a market that the league should put more resources into for the purpose of growing the game.
In the case of Seattle, there is a long history of successful pro sports teams in this city. The main problem in attracting an NHL team is the lack of a modern stadium. Key Arena, which housed the NBA's Supersonics for most of their history until the team relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008, is not an ideal building for an NHL team.
Despite strong efforts to build a new arena over the last few years, construction has not begun. The proposed arena is designed to seat more than 17,000 fans for NHL games, per SonicsArena.com. If this new arena is built, there's no question that it would be suitable for an NHL franchise. This picture of what the building would look like for hockey is quite impressive.
But until the arena situation gets settled, Seattle is not a good option for an expansion team.
Portland is an interesting market for the NHL. The NBA's Trail Blazers have done very well in the city with top-five finishes in total attendance in each of the last five seasons. One positive for a future Portland franchise is the lack of competing pro teams. A new NHL team in Portland wouldn't have an NFL or MLB team to compete with for fan support.
The WHL's Portland Winterhawks have enjoyed a successful time in the city with two Memorial Cup championships since its founding in 1951. The Winterhawks have also played games at the Rose Garden (home of the Trail Blazers), and it's clear that this building is a good one to watch hockey.
There aren't any major reasons for the NHL to stay away from Portland, especially since it already has a great arena.
But the ideal spot for the league to expand is Quebec City. The NHL has already been there and the fans were quite supportive. Throughout the financial struggle of the Nordiques there was a consistently strong level of support from fans.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talked about Quebec as an NHL market in an interview with TSN in 2010:
There are a lot of hockey fans there. With the right ownership group, with a new arena, and the economic system we have – which is different than the one we had when the team left – I believe a team can be well supported in that market.
According to HockeyDB, the Quebec Nordiques drew over 14,000 fans per game in 13 of their final 14 seasons (1981-82 through 1994-95). In that span, the team averaged 14,715 fans per game at the Colisée, which has a capacity of 15,176. That's an attendance percentage of 96.9, which would have been better than nine teams from the 2013 season, according to ESPN. A new Quebec franchise would also have no other pro teams to compete with.
With a larger, state-of-the-art arena currently being constructed in Quebec City that will be fit for an NHL team (with 18,000 seats, per Yahoo! Sports), there is a strong chance that a team would be successful financially in Quebec. When you factor in the amount of passionate hockey fans who have waited many years to support a team again, it's easy to see why Quebec is a logical choice.
Getting a new arena is usually the toughest challenge in a city's mission to attract an NHL team, and it's a hurdle that Quebec has already cleared.
Another reason why Quebec is the preferred destination for an expansion team is the rivalries it would quickly form with current NHL teams that competed against the Nordiques. The Battle of Quebec between the Montreal Canadiens and Nordiques was one of the NHL's best rivalries (on the level of today's Flyers vs. Penguins games) when it was abruptly ended by the Quebec club moving to Colorado in 1995.
While it would likely take a number of years and/or a few playoff series for Northwest teams to establish rivalries, the chances of a Quebec franchise reigniting past rivalries and creating new ones quickly are high.
Which city is the best option for expansion?
One of the few problems with Quebec getting a team is the lack of an open expansion/relocation spot in the two new Eastern Conference divisions. The league would have to realign again to make room for another Quebec team.
But based on previous success in the market, the amount of hockey fans in the area, a lack of competing pro teams, the future presence of a new arena and the high chance for financial success, Quebec City is without question the best place for the NHL to expand in the near future.
Seattle and Portland are worthy cities and deserve an opportunity to acquire an NHL franchise, but Quebec City should be first in line when/if the league decides to expand.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. Canadian population via Statistics Canada. United States population via the Census.