The National Hockey League (NHL) approved the expansion of the league to Seattle on Tuesday, ending months of speculation over the future of the 32nd franchise in the world’s premier hockey circuit.
The decision comes as no surprise, the Seattle bid had an aura of eventuality to it because of their record setting season ticket commitment drive. The city showed their commitment and determination for a major professional hockey team, and it was rewarded yesterday.
The Seattle bid had all the elements needed to succeed: a stable and committed ownership group, favorable market demographics, robust corporate sponsorship potential, large media presence, and a dynamic, ambitious arena plan. The team name has not been decided yet, those details in the marketing of the franchise will be forthcoming. That is a crucial decision that must be carefully weighed.
What is known from the announcement yesterday is that the team and the NHL pushed the inaugural season start date a year to the 2021-22 hockey season. This will provide some much-needed extra time for the arena renovation project to be not rushed to completion as well as allow for the proper marketing and branding of the team in the community.
The Seattle team will play in the Pacific Division, which makes geographic sense and to balance the divisions out, the Arizona Coyotes will move from the Pacific to the Central Division for the 2021-22 season. This part of the announcement has gained significant attention and it is in this portion of the news from the NHL meetings in Georgia that could get interesting.
The realignment of the league to put the Coyotes into the Central either could be just a sensible logistical decision, or the harbinger of things to come for that franchise. The league office was quick to their defense of moving the Coyotes, citing that because most of Arizona (besides the Navajo nation tribal lands) does not recognize Daylight Savings Time – the team spends most of the time of the hockey season in the Mountain Time Zone.
However, the current teams in the Central Division such as Minnesota, Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis all play in the Central time zone. This will translate into earlier starting times for games on the road for the Coyotes as well as longer travel times for the team and a shift away from their geographic rivals in Las Vegas and Los Angeles respectively.
This shift in divisional alignment has caused rampant speculation about the Coyotes being relocated to another Central time zone city that is angling for an NHL team, Houston, with a billionaire who controls the world class arena in the nation’s fourth largest city.
The move to Houston may be a bit premature even though in my earlier coverage on the failed attempts that the Arizona Coyotes have made to gain an arena in a better location in the Phoenix metro area. The Coyotes ownership has an agreement with the arena management company that allows them to go to a year-to-year lease on their current home, Gila River Arena, for five years until they determine a plan for a future facility.
The Coyotes have no plan or site on the board currently, which only fuels the fire that the team will relocate to Houston. The Houston bid for expansion definitely took a setback because after Seattle enters as the 32nd team, and finally balances out the league from a geographic and conference balance perspective, the league would not expand and add just one team.
The NHL has been clear of their interest in Houston especially to grow TV ratings and reach a more diversified demographic. The owner of the arena in Houston, Tillman Fertitta, also owns the NBA’s Houston Rockets and has been vocal about his desire to bring the NHL to the city. He met with NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, earlier this year to discuss very generally, the vision for hockey in Houston.
Some feel that the league does not want to lose the Phoenix market and that the Coyotes will find a way to stay in the desert, where they do have a loyal fan base. The speculation about a move to Houston will continue until the Coyotes find a long-term home for an arena in the East Valley or downtown.
It should also be noted that the Calgary Flames have an issue with plans for a new arena there now looking very dismal. The ownership there has threatened to relocate the team or sell the team to a party in another city. The door for Houston remains open in that relocation scenario as well.
The option to expand to Houston would require the league to expand by two franchises to 34 teams total. The logical other bid would be from Quebec, which has a new arena built and ready, but the expansion fee would be enormous in Canadian dollar figures. The Quebecor group would have to be willing to shell out a huge front-end cost to make that work.
In my view, I do not see the NHL ownership being willing to cut the revenue pie into 34 slices. I think the addition of Seattle is a home run for the league and makes some much sense from so many perspectives to add that city to the hockey landscape.
In addition, I am in the minority of people I have talked to in recent days on this subject that thinks that Houston would be an excellent destination for hockey as well. The city is much more diverse than many Americans realize and they have passionate sports fans and many transplanted people from around the entire country that now call Houston home that would fuel the appetite for the game.
It remains to be seen what happens with the Coyotes, the Houston bid for a hockey team, and if Quebec will finally get a seat back at the league table. However, what we do know is that Seattle will be joining the league to play in a state-of-the-art renovated Key Arena in the center of that great American city. The league took a bold step forward with Seattle and hockey in North America will be the beneficiary of those efforts.
(some background courtesy of ESPN, NBC Sports)