The NHL's continuing defiant stand to fight to the death to save money-losing franchises is creating a narrow path to satisfy all interested parties, including itself.
Only yesterday, on CBC radio, Commissioner Gary Bettman poured cold water on Quebec's chances of getting readmitted to the NHL despite making a commitment to build a new $400 million arena with taxpayers' money.
Unlike the NBA, which allowed Seattle to be transferred to Oklahoma City without any problems and is prepared to let New Orleans go, the NHL sees any relocation as a blow to its prestige in the United States and a threat to its ultimate goal—a rich American television contract.
But that hasn't stopped cities like Quebec, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Hartford from making noises about being admitted to the NHL in the near future.
Let's lay out the choices that the NHL and the interested parties have.
This is the worst choice of all, abhorrent to both the NHL and the cities that want a team. The NHL would probably suffer even more humiliation and loss of face than relocation, if it had to fold teams that nobody wanted. And it goes without saying that this policy doesn't benefit cities that want an NHL team.
This is the most sensible of all options, but the NHL vows to fight to the death to keep its existing franchises because of the television situation listed above. Moving all the troubled franchises to cities where they are wanted would be financially stable for the league, but relocation has become synonymous with loss of face and loss of a rich American television contract in the minds of the NHL owners.
For Bettman, it's also become a personal issue because he has been the face of the policy to place NHL franchises in cities unfamiliar with hockey in hopes of landing that television contract. Relocation would satisfy the hockey hungry cities, but not the NHL.
Start a New Hockey League
There are no rumblings about this—yet. But this is the way Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Hartford got into the NHL in the first place. Bring back a new version of the WHA. The old WHA had plenty of NHL-caliber players but its main weakness was that it played in second-class arenas. Only Edmonton took the league seriously by building an NHL-size arena.
With good ownership, the chances of a new league's survival are much better now. Quebec, Hamilton and Winnipeg all have first-class arenas. Astute choices of the right American cities to locate franchises might make a new league feasible. But so far, the hockey hungry cities are still willing to put their faith in the NHL.
Expand By Two Teams to a Symmetrical 32
This step would get Winnipeg and Quebec off the NHL's back (assuming these are really the ones the NHL wants), and would also restore some of the faith and credibility of the league in Canada. Thirty-two teams would mean a two-conference league, with four divisions of four teams, like the NFL. There would also be no relocation of existing teams to please the NHL.
The problem is that there are too many cities to satisfy. Besides the two cities listed above, there are also Hamilton, Hartford, other neglected hockey markets and non-hockey markets that the NHL would like to see have teams. It's as good a choice as relocation, but it won't satisfy everybody.
Expand the League by Stages to the Next Symmetrical Number, 40
This is probably the only solution left that will please almost everybody. This would mean a league with two conferences with four divisions with five teams. At one time, this seemed to be the goal of all four major North American professional leagues, but the current recession and reduced fan base made the leagues take a long look before adding more teams.
But this step is the only one that will not mean relocation, satisfy the hockey hungry cities and probably increase the NHL's chances of getting a rich American television contract. The last league expansion was by four teams, so start with that, and continue to add teams until there are a symmetrical 40.
Assuming that the last option is chosen, which cities are in the pot for expansion?
At the top of the list comes Quebec, Winnipeg and Hamilton, followed by Saskatoon and one of London, Kitchener, Oshawa and a second Toronto and Montreal franchise.
All these cities are almost sure winners if a proper arena is built. Quebec and Hamilton have them in place. Winnipeg is small and barely acceptable, and the other cities would have to build new arenas.
Especially with current strong Canadian dollar, these are almost can't-lose franchises.
The Northern United States
Besides Canada, the Northern United States was specifically ignored by Bettman and the NHL, which also allowed Hartford to be moved south.
Cities in this group would be Hartford, Milwaukee, Portland and Seattle. All have "hockey roots." Seattle, in fact, was the first American city to win the Stanley Cup.
"Experimental" cities might be Rochester and Providence.
These are the best American cities to expand to because of their past ties to hockey. Canadians might complain about the current non-hockey cities in the NHL, but they couldn't complain about these choices.
They rate equal or slightly below the Canadian cities in terms of chances for success.
Cities the NHL Wants To Expand To
These cities are similar to the ones the Bettman-led NHL has been expanding to. Highest on this list are said to be Houston and Las Vegas.
During the last expansion, Oklahoma City made a serious bid to get a team. In light of the success of their NBA team, they would be a serious contender again.
Kansas City was said to be a top choice because it built a new arena, until attendance at an NHL preseason game dampened their chances.
Also on this list would be every NBA-NFL, non-traditional hockey city that doesn't have a hockey team, more than a dozen in all.
In light of the NHL's policy on relocation, a 40-team league would seem to be the only option available that would satisfy everybody.
But because of the NHL's narrow-minded stance, it may be that events outside the league's control will force the issue.