The Future of the NHL

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIOctober 10, 2011

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 15: Carey Price #31 and Hal Gill #75 of the Montreal Canadiens defend against Cody McCormick # 8 of the Buffalo Sabres  at HSBC Arena on October 15, 2010 in Buffalo, New York.  Montral won 2-1.(Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

In recent articles about the NHL, I've indicated that the league may change its structure to that of the NFL, with two conferences that have four divisions of four teams each.

This implies that the NHL will expand to a symmetrical 32 teams in the near future and that the new structure will be the basis for an eventual expansion of the league to the next symmetrical number of 40—also I expect the NFL, MLB and the NBA to eventually follow this path as well.

I also have argued that the NHL, based on its current realignment problem (with Detroit, Columbus, and Nashville all seeking to be relocated in the Eastern Conference to save travel expenses and have better rivalries) will expand in a balanced matter between east and west to see that no such alignment problems will arise in the future.

To that end, I've argued that the next two teams to be added to the NHL by expansion will be Quebec and Seattle, both of which have had recent talks about getting a team with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

These arguments seem to imply that I have some idealized picture of the NHL of the future. 

I have written several articles about the future direction of hockey but never a clear picture of the NHL of the future I foresee.

In the first article about this subject, I listed several possible long term policies the NHL might adopt.  I argued that the NHL couldn't continue on its present path and that change would be forced on the league.

The recent capitulation to Winnipeg, and the bitter withdrawal from the potentially lucrative Atlanta market for a second time, has confirmed my prognosis.

TORONTO, CANADA - OCTOBER 8: Tyler Bozak #42 of the Toronto Maple Leafs gets around Chris Phillips #4 of the Ottawa Senators during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre October 8, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

The only error I made was that I thought Quebec would get its team back first because it had better plans for its arena.

But the NHL, pronouncing the Winnipeg arena big enough, anxious to get out of the poor Atlanta ownership problem, and using the opportunity to end one of its alignment problems, gave Winnipeg its reluctant blessing.

In the face of the NHL's obstinate resistance to relocate its failing franchises, notably Phoenix, and its refusal to recognize hockey enthusiasm in Canada, I also wrote articles about starting a rival league like the old WHA, and the possibility that Canada would consider withdrawing from the NHL completely and just have a professional league with teams based in Canada.

But the recent relocation to Winnipeg and the almost certain re-entry of Quebec in the near future means that the NHL is going to be in Canada for a long time and is now seriously valuing its Canadian franchises instead of belittling them as in the past.

For the first time since he took office, Commissioner Bettman is starting to question his ideas of making the NHL an American national sport by placing franchises in unfamiliar hockey markets in hopes of landing a large American television contract.

Perhaps if Bettman had concentrated on placing teams in cities where hockey has American roots (notably the northern United States, another area belittled and neglected by the NHL) the problem of money-losing teams would not have arisen and good television ratings based on the viewership from these cities might have got the league the television contract it so desperately seeks.

WINNIPEG, CANADA - OCTOBER 9: Winnipeg Jets fans (L-R) Andrew Sinclair, Eric Hogue, Kyle MacKay and Tyler Contant make their way to the MTS Centre before the Winnipeg Jets game against the Montreal Canadiens for NHL action at the MTS Centre on October 9,
Marianne Helm/Getty Images

In light of this change of policy, I've decided to draw a picture of how the NHL might look like in the future.

Some of my old ideas still prevail; the NHL will become a 40-team, two conference, four divisions of five teams league, proving that there are plenty of hockey loving cities still around.

For Canadian patriots, in a slice of irony, Bettman, who began his career as Commissioner by relocating Canadian teams, now presides over a league whose Canadian content has doubled to 12 cities.

For those fans demanding relocation of money-losing markets, four more teams, the Phoenix Coyotes (at long last), the New Jersey Devils, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Florida Panthers disappear.

I also toyed with the idea of Dallas shifting, but I discovered that would mean an alignment imbalance, so I allowed them to survive.  Hence there is also a Houston team.

The league will also expand and relocate in a balanced east-west manner so that no more alignment problems will arise.  Nashville will eventually be shifted to the Eastern Conference.

The New York Islanders will eventually get a new arena and survive.  So will Edmonton.

With a few exceptions, most American expansion will now be in the north.  With stable markets and increased viewership, the league finally gets a lucrative American television contract.

My NHL of the future will look like this:

13 Feb 1997:  Leftwinger Kent Manderville of the Hartford Whalers moves down the ice during a game against the New Jersey Devils at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  The Devils won the game, 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /
Al Bello/Getty Images

Eastern Conference

New York I              Tampa Bay                Detroit                   Montreal C

New York R             Carolina                    London                  Montreal M

Pittsburgh               Washington              Hamilton                Quebec

Philadelphia           Nashville                    Toronto                  Boston

Buffalo                   Baltimore                   Ottawa                  Hartford

Western Conference

Vancouver            Oklahoma City           Winnipeg                Los Angeles

Seattle                 Dallas                        Chicago                   Anaheim

Edmonton             Houston                    Minnesota               San Jose

Calgary                 St. Louis                  Milwaukee                Portland

Spokane               Kansas City              Saskatoon               Colorado

How the NHL reaches this state is contained in the following chronology:

2011: At the winter meetings, it is announced that Detroit will be the team to switch places with Winnipeg.  Columbus and Nashville grumble but in light of their lack of prestige as opposed to Detroit, they agree to wait their turn. 

Because of the new realignment, it is announced that the NHL will adopt a two conference, four division structure like the NFL.  This in turn leads to the announcement (with expansion fee money in the owners' dreams) that the NHL will expand by two teams to a symmetrical 32.

CALGARY, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 29: Anton Babchuk #33 of the Calgary Flames gets close to Kyle Chipchura #24 of the Phoenix Coyotes in third period NHL preseason action on September 29, 2011 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by
Mike Ridewood/Getty Images

2012: It is announced that Quebec and Seattle will be the NHL's newest members and will join the NHL in 2014.  Both announce that new arenas are or will be built in time for 2015.  This means that they will play in their old arenas for one season.   Edmonton also announces that it will build a new 20,000 seat arena. 

In another move, the long-festering Phoenix Coyote situation is resolved by shifting the team to Kansas City which put itself back in the picture for a team by good attendance at a 2011 exhibition game.  This move is facilitated by Gary Bettman's friend, NBA Commissioner, David Stern, who agrees to put a second basketball team into Phoenix to take the place of the departed Coyotes. 

Satisfied, the city of Glendale and the Goldwater Institute cease their resistance to the move.  In return, Bettman signs an agreement promising that the NHL will never try to return to Atlanta for at least 50 years so that Stern can put a second team into that market too.

2014: Quebec and Seattle join the NHL.  At the last moment, New York Islanders owner, Charles Wang announces a new arena deal after his existing lease was due to expire in 2015.

Dallas owner Tom Gaglardi tells the NHL,  "Help!  The team can't continue to lose money at this rate!"  The league hastily convenes a meeting and decides to put a team in Houston, a city they've always wanted to expand to, in hopes of keeping Dallas alive.  The move succeeds. 

To balance the conferences, Baltimore which announced its plan to build an arena to get a hockey and basketball franchise in 2013, is awarded a team.  This too becomes a success because Baltimore has always been a good sports city.  Both teams enter the NHL in 2016.  Baltimore becomes a fierce rival with Washington, Philadelphia, and strangely, the Toronto Maple Leafs because of their baseball tradition.

To satisfy Canadian fans complaining about more potential money-losing cities, Jim Balsillie, whose Blackberry money the NHL finds it cannot do without, is finally allowed to buy an existing team and move it to Hamilton.  It turns out to be the New Jersey Devils which are renamed the Steel Demons.  Sadly Lou Lamarillo comments,  "We've tried and tried to establish ourselves but we've always been third stringers to the Rangers and Islanders.  The big shots in Manhattan would never accept us even when we won three Stanley Cups." 

Balsille talks Lamarillo into staying to run the team and vows to be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal in the 1990s.  Hamilton takes the first step by beating out (you guessed it) the Toronto Maple Leafs on the final day of the season and so their non-playoff streak continues.  Basillie's Demons take Pittsburgh to a memorable seven game semi-final where they finally bow out, in what is billed as the Battle of the Steel Cities.

EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 9: 2011 1st overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates his first ever NHL goal on Brent Johnson #1 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during third period action October 09, 2011 at the Rexall Place in E
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Ontario teachers complain to their pension board which has pocketed half of the Hamilton compensation money and not invested any of it back in the team, that they still don't get enough from their investment and perhaps the Leafs should be sold. 

In contrast, Buffalo owner Terry Pegula whose team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups and has pocketed the other half of the Hamilton compensation money, says that he is perfectly content to market the Sabres in New York State which stretches from Albany to Erie, Pa, and welcomes a Hamilton team as being good for business.

2017: One year after Baltimore and Houston enter the NHL, the league decides to expand again.  This is done to keep its promise to Hartford which finally solves its arena issue and plans to open a new 19,000 seat arena in 2019.  A jubilant Howard Baldwin says,  "This is a great day for Hartford.  Ever since the Whalers left, I've dreamed of them returning in a modern arena.  We look forward to renewing our rivalries with Montreal, Quebec, and especially Boston."

The Canadiens won't have only Hartford back to be a traditional rival.  Frustrated by the continued poor showing of the Florida Panthers who have only made the playoffs once in the past two decades, the league OKs the sale of the team to a group of Montreal businessmen who move the team into a new 20,000 seat arena near the Olympic Stadium, and rename the team after the old Canadiens' rival of the 1930s, the Maroons.  Said a spokesman,  "Montreal now has a population of over four million people.  There's plenty of room for a second team."  The new team immediately supersedes Quebec as the Canadiens most bitter rival.

And since the league doesn't want to admit Hartford alone which would upset the east-west balance, they add another western team and it's difficult to argue with their choice of Milwaukee, long an American hockey hotbed.  The new team becomes a great rival of Chicago, Minnesota, and Winnipeg.  Originally the team was going to call itself the Packers and wear green and gold uniforms, but the owners insist on something original instead.

VANCOUVER, CANADA - OCTOBER 6:  Mark Letestu #10 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is checked by Daniel Sedin #22  of the Vancouver Canucks during the second period at Rogers ArenaOctober 6, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/
Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

Both teams enter the NHL in 2019, but meanwhile 2017 is a great year for Canadian teams as Hamilton finally brings the Stanley Cup back north of the border.  Owner Jim Balsillie and President Lou Lamarillo toast each other and celebrate the fulfillment of Balsillie's vow to be the next Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal in the 1990s.  A glum spokesperson for the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund can only comment, "Don't worry, next year Toronto will make the playoffs."

2020 - The NHL finally solves its remaining alignment problems.  First the Columbus Blue Jackets, after nearly three decades of spotty playoff appearances and no victories, are sold and moved to Portland which has deep roots with Canadian junior hockey.  A plan to add Cincinnati as a "rival franchise" like Houston was with Dallas is abandoned. 

Columbus joins Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis in a select group of failed NHL/WHA franchises between the Ohio-Indiana border.  To this day, no one can account for the continuing mysterious unpopularity of hockey that exists in this portion of the northern United States.

To compensate for the loss of Columbus, the league expands to Oklahoma City and Saskatoon.  The latter team will be like the Roughriders of the CFL, a provincial team, but the city of Saskatoon has grown to over 600,000, the same size as Edmonton and Calgary were when they entered the NHL.  Both cities make public comments about their new NHL status.

A spokesperson for Oklahoma says,  "We've been trying for two decades to get a team.  The success of the basketball team has proven we're big league.  But when the NHL expanded to Houston to please Dallas, they wouldn't even consider our offer.  The Stars and Aeros better beware when we get our team because we're going to win our division and make them pay for making us wait so long."

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30:  Tyler Ennis #63 of the Buffalo Sabres shoots the puck against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on September 30, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In Saskatoon, a descendant of Wild Bill Hunter, now a partner with the Ice Edge group that owns the new franchise says,  "This is what Bill always wanted back in the WHA days of the 1970s.  He always believed Saskatchewan could have a hockey team and now it has come true.  We're going to surprise a few people."  Of course the team will wear green uniforms like their Roughrider counterparts.

The addition of two western teams allows Nashville to move to the Eastern Conference so the last of the alignment problems are gone.  Quebec wins its first Stanley Cup.

2022 -  To round out the NHL to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams, the league surprisingly expands into two "small markets", Spokane and London.  But the markets aren't really as small as the critics suggest.  Spokane has now grown to nearly one million people, and the southern Ontario market is so lucrative it can support four NHL franchises. 

After a short competition, London is selected over Kitchener, Oshawa, and a second Toronto team.  The compensation money is divided between three teams, Detroit, Buffalo, and ironically, Jim Balsillie's Hamilton team.

Commissioner Gary Bettman refutes criticism that the markets are too small and that the league should have considered San Diego, San Antonio, Las Vegas, or a return to Miami.  "We've learned our lesson,"  he says.  "No more putting teams into cities that have had little contact with hockey unless we're absolutely sure of the market.  Spokane has been in Canadian junior hockey for decades and there's so much enthusiasm for NHL hockey in southern Ontario that putting another team there is a no-brainer.  We expect both teams to be instant successes."

Bettman also announces his retirement after nearly two decades as commissioner.  A grateful Canada that has watched its membership in the NHL double during his tenure presents him with the highest award a non-Canadian can receive.  He makes a farewell tour through the Canadian franchises to cheering crowds, and during the Saskatoon visit, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge donate a new trophy to the NHL, to the Canadian team that finishes with the most points during the regular season. 

Fittingly this trophy is first won by the Montreal Canadiens who eventually beat their rivals, the Maroons, in an Eastern Conference semi-final.  Montreal does not win the Stanley Cup which is captured for a second time by Hamilton.  A glum spokesperson for the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund can only comment, "Don't worry, next year Toronto will make the playoffs."

In recognition of the growing international membership of the NHL, Bettman's successor is ex-player Jaromir Jager who announces that the NHL is satisfied with a 40 team North American membership and if expansion is considered, it will be about setting up an NHL division in Europe.  Rochester, Providence, San Diego and Halifax grumble about being neglected.


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