The NHL has come a long way since the days of the Original six and have built a strong, marketable product to sell to the fans. Although the league has been in Los Angeles for quite some time now—and it must have been a stretch to think that would have happened—having two Florida franchises would not have crossed anyone's mind 20 years ago. Especially after hockey in Atlanta had just failed at the end of the '70s.
In my early years of watching hockey, the NHL had 21 teams, which seemed like an awkward number. The first Expansion I saw came when the San Jose Sharks assumed half of the Minnesota North Stars before they moved to Dallas. I still don't get how that worked, or why they were able to do that, but it evened the teams out a little bit.
At that time, adding a new team was pretty cool! It brought a new excitement to the league and had more people buzzing about hockey in California. Back when the California Golden Seals were in the NHL, the league wasn't the American draw it is today. Perhaps the departure of the Seals paved the way for the Sharks to succeed, and also gave the fans a taste and then took away, making them miss what they had taken advantage of.
The NHL had plans to even out the divisions by expanding with two more teams to make it an even 24. These additions brought a lot of excitement, and gave the NHL more fuel to look at expanding the league's reach into the United States.
By 2000, the NHL had expanded to 30 teams. 30 was a good number to stop at, and as it stands, most of the teams have been able to handle themselves on the ice, but also financially. Some haven't fared as well as others, and we're seeing them in the media as we focus on the questions of "Will they move?", "Where will they move?", and "When will Jim Balsillie make a bid to try to move our team to Canada?" But back to expansion talk.
While Hockey is Canada's game, Canadian NHL franchises were in trouble in the late '90s. The Quebec Nordiques had moved to Colorado, and the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix. It were the US franchises that carried the load. The expansion worked well and served its purpose. It solidified things until the Canadian economy could step back to a place that could support its teams.
That being said, there were definitely some who didn't like the idea. Some of the purists don't like the way the league's talent has been watered down. They say there are too many players that are given positions on each team, and with too many teams, some positions are filled with players that aren't quite up to the standard that there was with fewer teams.
I would tend to agree that it may have opened the doors too quickly to let too many players in, but I think expansion was important to making the league what it is today. Perhaps the league needed to take a slower approach to expansion, but you need to make room for growth, and expansion was the only way to do that at the time.
Looking at the state of the NHL as of 2008-2009, we are seeing a bit of a shift. With the lockout in 2004-05, both sides worked an agreement that saw a bit of a changing of the guard. Out with the old style, and in with the "New NHL." The level of play has increased since the expansion opened up hundreds more jobs, and we are seeing teams more able to compete on a consistent basis.
Canadian teams have also started to turn the corner, and even though only half of the Canadian teams usually make the playoffs, they still draw crowds. Some American NHL teams, aren't seeing the same results. There have been more than a few teams in the recent past that have really struggled. These teams have been talked about in those relocation talks, but nothing has happened.
It is puzzling why the NHL wouldn't allow these sales to go through. Gary Bettman does think it is very important to have the American teams, and has really gone to bat for these teams. That support would have been nice for the Nordiques and the Jets, but that is in the past.
Bettman wants the team to succeed, but I think he is blinded by his own agenda. Some of his reason for not allowing a relocation of any particular team to Southern Ontario were because of the leagues decision to look into expansion. The fees for getting an expansion franchise are exorbitant, and would help existing franchises somewhat. But it's only a band aid.
The NHL needs to open the door to a stronger Canadian Market and let us Canadians support the NHL for a while. Expanding doesn't do anything but cost the league money because of the fact that there are a few franchises that are losing money and are having trouble paying the bills. Expansion spreads out the talent, and most of all doesn't address the issue that there are still teams in financial trouble. It will continue losing money until somebody steps in and stops the bleeding.
The NHL dropped the ball in Phoenix, letting the team get to the point of bankruptcy, and now wants to wait to see what can happen with possible new owners (other than Balsillie).
If it's most likely the Coyotes won't be in Phoenix much longer, who is going to spend money on season tickets? The team is just going to be gone soon anyway. So you take a team that is already struggling, and you take away their biggest way to inject money into their organization.
Now Jim Balsillie may have been a little shrewd in his dealings, but in the interest of the league, I would say to Gary Bettman, swallow your pride, allow the Coyotes to move to Hamilton, and cut your losses where they stand. And oh yeah...don't even think about expansion right now.