15 years after the National Hockey League finished a massive makeover by adding the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets to expand to 30 teams, it is coming back for another bite at the apple. The league’s latest endeavor looks to bring two more teams into the fold in Las Vegas and Quebec City, the only two cities to submit proposals last week before the deadline last week.
Both of these cities make for intriguing new venues. Quebec was the home of the Quebec Nordiques from 1979-1995 before becoming the Colorado Avalanche during the NHL’s mass relocation of teams from hockey hungry Canada to the American Sun Belt.
But French Canada remains hockey country to the fullest degree. The city has been building a state of the art hockey arena in anticipation of getting its team back, and adding another domestic rival three hours up the Fleuve Saint-Laurent would create a healthy intra-province rivalry.
Then again, if having a team in Quebec didn’t work the first time around, why should we expect this version to be any different? Quebec is a small city of just a half million people, and the Nordiques never accomplished anything noteworthy in their two decades as a footnote to the Montreal Canadiens.
Las Vegas is another interesting case. It has name brand recognition but it is a small metropolitan area where the average year-round temperature hovers around 70 degrees. One can argue that the large population of ‘snowbirds’ from Canada and the northern states that reside in the area during the winter, coupled with the continual flow of gamblers and debauchers, could provide an extra boost to fan support during the key months.
Las Vegas – which is constructing an arena of its own – is also one of the few remaining North American metropolitan areas with no major professional sports team, which is in no small part because of the sports leagues’ long-held reluctance to be associated with any type of gambling. While the Las Vegas market is likely not big enough to support multiple teams, there will a large advantage for the franchise that gets in first.
But putting a franchise in Las Vegas fails the same logic test as does putting one in Quebec. If it hasn’t worked in the past, why would we expect things to be different this time? The NHL’s two-decade long experiment of relocating teams to the more populous Sun Belt cities can hardly be described as a success, as illustrated by the Atlanta Thrashers packing up and moving back to Winnipeg in 2011 and the sagging attendance numbers elsewhere in the region.
While growth in itself is generally a good thing in most circumstances, it’s difficult to endorse this proposed expansion as a positive development for the league. If their strategy was to use expansion to even out the conferences – the East has 16 teams compared to just 14 in the West, those plans were thwarted when one of the two cities – Quebec — that submitted a proposal is farther east than any NHL team except Boston.
We’ve seen in the NBA, and to some extent the NFL, that over-expanding usually increases the amount of mediocre players and teams, which isn’t a recipe for convincing more casual fans to come to your games. The NHL needs to remain proactive in marketing its game and making its product more fan-engaging, but the odds are that they’ll be regretting this expansion soon after undertaking it.
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