Where Should the NHL Expand Next?

Stephen RCorrespondent IMay 12, 2009

14 Apr 1996:  Leftwinger Keith Tkachuk of the Winnipeg Jets moves down the ice during a game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California.  The Ducks won the game, 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty  /Allsport

We're in the midst of a very exciting playoff campaign in the NHL this year.  There have been fights, high-scoring games, shutouts, upsets, and plenty of drama. 

And yet, thanks to the NHL's legal wrangling over the woe-begotten Phoenix Coyotes, I've heard the names Balsillie, Bettman, and Daly out of my hockey fan friends a lot more than the names Ovechkin, Crosby, or Toews.  What gives?

I live in Canada, full of rabid hockey fans, purists, and closet America-haters. Most of my friends have viewed the NHL's attempts to grow the game in non-traditional hockey markets as a pretty bad idea. 

"How can you have a pro hockey team in places where you can't even play hockey outside," they ask. 

How, indeed.

I remember vividly growing up in Canada back in the days when we had eight teams. 

Growing up in Calgary, obviously the Flames were my No. 1. But I was a Jets fan, too, and it was a sad day for me when they left, even if I was only 9 years old when it happened. 

Would I love to see more Canadian hockey teams?  Absolutely.  Is this the best thing for the game?  Not necessarily.

People love to pick on the non-traditional hockey markets.  Yeah, it's a little weird thinking of a winter sport being played in California, where "winter" just means long-sleeved t-shirt instead of short sleeved.  But let's look at the facts. 

All three California franchises have been very successful, both on the scoresheet and the balance sheet. 

The Ducks, originally the very definition of a Mickey Mouse club, have had two berths in Lord Stanley's final dance and have one win to show for it.  That's one more appearance and one more win than the most recent Canadian expansion team in our nation's capital and undisputed hockey hotbed.

The teams in Florida have each appeared in the Cup finals once—the Lightning have won it. 

Both teams seem to have an issue with low attendance numbers, but I honestly don't think this is a reflection on hockey's popularity there, after all, the Marlins and the Rays keep showing up on articles about franchises that are likely to move.

If baseball has a hard time drawing fans there, the attendance problem must have nothing to do with the sport.

Yes, the Coyotes are failing.  Maybe Phoenix was not the best place for a team, but tell that to their fans. 

The fact of the matter is that it is hard to convince people to pay to see a lousy team losing games.  And that is irrespective of the market. 

I can remember pre-2004, when you could pick up Calgary Flames tickets for a song, when there were enough empty seats in the building that you could usually find somewhere better to sit than was actually on the ticket.

And this is in the hockey-mad Canadian prairies. 

Phoenix needs to be able to focus on hockey, not on business, not on arguing with the city of Glendale over their arena, simply on creating a quality on-ice product that people want to see. 

But, let's assume that all of these arguments are moot, that the team has to get out of Phoenix.  Where do they go? 

Every single Canadian will tell you the same thing.  Winnipeg.  Hamilton.  Quebec City.  Bring them back to Canada, preserve our game, blah blah blah.  But you know what?  That's not the way to win more fans.

When the Minnesota North Stars franchise was in trouble and moved to Dallas, the NHL made one of the smartest business moves they've ever made. 

The Stars have consistently been a top NHL franchise in their new home (with the obvious exception of this past season) and have definitely helped expand the sport of hockey in Texas, which could certainly be considered an unfamiliar territory.

This leads me to the main point of this article.  If the NHL is really thinking, and I know this makes me unpopular, (and possibly a traitor to my countrymen) the next place they need to put a team is in Houston.

Houston makes sense.  This is a city of 2.2 million people in a metropolitan area of 5.7 million. 

Houston and Dallas are about 250 miles apart so there certainly can't be any complaints about territory issues. 

Houston supports an NBA team, an MLB team, and an NFL team already. 

The Toyota Centre, which is a baby at 6 years old, can fit 17,800 fans in for a hockey game, and already has the infrastructure in place thanks to the Wild's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros. 

Hockey's got a history in Houston—the WHA had a franchise here who featured four seasons of a certain Mr. Hockey, and I still see Houston Aeros jerseys with "Howe" "No. 9" on them. 

To Balsillie and the hockey fans of Southern Ontario: I'm sure a franchise in Hamilton would do just fine.  I'm sure Canadians would love it. 

But if the NHL really wants to make an expansion move that will further justify their policy of building the game in non-traditional markets, a team in Houston is a no-brainer.


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