The Five Best Markets for Future NHL Franchises

future nhl markets

Houston's Toyota Center could eventually host an NHL club. (RMeneses/Flickr)

Since the National Hockey League’s inception in 1917, the only constant has been change. Aside from the Original Six era, the league has constantly been in a state of flux – adding new franchises and moving others. With the proposed four-division schedule being rejected by the National Hockey League Players Association due to concerns about unbalanced scheduling and travel, the obvious follow-up question is “Well, how can that schedule be balanced?”

One possible, albeit potentially unpopular, answer is “more teams.” After all, it’s much easier to divide 32 into four divisions than it is 30.

In this vein, here are five proposed future National Hockey League markets. The markets have been chosen based upon a handful of fairly straight-forward criteria.

  • Hockey History: Has the market had a major hockey team before? If so, how did the team perform? (Both on the ice and in the pocket book.)
  • Population: How big is the market? Is it growing or shrinking?
  • Economy: Do the people in said market have jobs? What kind of jobs? Is there a thriving corporate environment with companies that will pay for luxury suites and/or sponsorships? While metrics such as the Sports Business Journal’s are taken into account, they aren’t the be-all, end-all here.
  • Arena: Is there an available NHL-sized venue?
  • Intangibles: Is it a sports town? Are there any cities close by with NHL teams? Does the city have any natural rivals?

Here are the proposed markets, in no particular order.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

  • Hockey History: While the city hasn’t had a major professional hockey team in some time, the game has deep roots in the area. The Seattle Metropolitans were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, claiming the prize in 1917 before the team folded in 1925. At present, the Seattle-area hosts two Western Hockey League junior teams – the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett Silvertips.
  • Population: 3.4 million metropolitan population.
  • Economy: Seattle is home to Microsoft, Boeing and a lot of other big, big companies. The area has a very strong tech business base and that means corporate support for an NHL club would be a strong possibility.
  • Arena: At present, there is no NHL-sized venue in the Seattle area. However, with the hopes of luring an NBA team (or an NHL team) to the city, there are talks ongoing to construct one.
  • Intangibles: Seattle is located on the west coast, which would allow it to slot in rather nicely if it replaced Phoenix (for example). Plus, the city is right next to Vancouver, which could provide for a nice friendly (or not-so-friendly) rivalry between the two neighbours. Seattle presently has the Seattle Mariners and Seattle Seahawks as far as major teams go.

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC

  • Hockey History: The province of Quebec has a long, long hockey history and capital of the province is no exception. Quebec City also used to have a team in the World Hockey Association and the NHL, the Nordiques. They were sold to Americans and moved to Colorado, where they have won two Stanley Cups. Since then, Quebec City has supported the QMJHL’s Remparts.
  • Population: 765,000 metropolitan population (slightly larger than metro Winnipeg).
  • Economy: Quebec City is fundamentally a government town, but it does have strong corporate communities in insurance and banking, among others. Functionally-speaking, it has a very similar economy to Winnipeg’s.
  • Arena: The Nordiques’ old arena, Le Colisee Pepsi, is still standing and seats 15,000 for hockey  – roughly the same as Winnipeg’s MTS Centre. However, a new 18,000 seat arena is currently in the planning stages, with financing reportedly secured.
  • Intangibles: Ever since Winnipeg got another shot at being an NHL city, Quebec City has been shouting “Us, too!” The success of the Jets in their new/old home will probably determine when/if the Nordiques return. On the more positive side, Quebec would have a natural rivalry with Montreal, Toronto (and the other Canadian teams) and is located conveniently near a lot of other eastern cities.

HOUSTON, TEXAS

  • Hockey History: While Houston doesn’t necessarily seem like a hockey hotbed, the city hosted the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association for many years. The team folded in 1978. Since 1994, the Aeros have been resurrected as a minor-pro team, most recently in the American Hockey League.
  • Population: 5.9 million metropolitan population.
  • Economy: Houston is a transportation hub and the capital of the American energy industry. It is to the United States what Calgary is to Canada. There’s a lot of corporate money in the city, too.
  • Arena: The AHL’s Houston Aeros play in the Toyota Center, also home to the NBA’s Rockets. It seats 19,000 for hockey.
  • Intangibles: Houston is a huge media market and a potential state rival with Dallas. It’s reasonably close to rest of West coast teams for travel purposes. The fact that the Dallas Stars haven’t done great at the gate lately likely doesn’t provide “NHL in Houston” advocates with much confidence, though. Houston has an NFL team, a Major League Baseball team and an NBA team.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI

  • Hockey History: Kansas City was the home of the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts for a grand total of two years. The team subsequently moved to Denver to become the Colorado Rockies. Eventually they settled down in New Jersey as the Devils. The city later hosted the Kansas City Blades of the International Hockey League for over a decade before the league folded in 2001.
  • Population: 2.2 million metropolitan population.
  • Economy: Kansas City has a fairly strong economy and a good amount of corporate money. It’s not quite Houston-sized, but fairly strong.
  • Arena: The Spirit Center seats over 17,000 for hockey. It hosted an exhibition game last fall between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings. Kansas City doesn’t have a full-time big-league tenant for the building, though.
  • Intangibles: Located on the opposite side of Missouri, a Kansas City hockey team could forge a rivalry with the St. Louis Blues. The city is located in the mid-west and could potentially provide a nice mid-way point for road trips, preventing teams from having to spend entire days traveling. Instead, they could have shorter trips and play in Kansas City, instead. Kansas City currently has the NFL’s Chiefs and baseball’s Royals, so it can support big-league sports.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse could hold an NHL team. (bettefw/Flickr)

  • Hockey History: Indianapolis is best known in hockey circles as the city where Wayne Gretzky began his hockey career with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers. The Racers disappeared in 1978. The city later had the Indianapolis Ice of the IHL and CHL for the better part of two decades.
  • Population: 1.7 million metropolitan population.
  • Economy: Indianapolis has a moderately large and thriving economy. It is roughly in the same economic shape as Kansas City.
  • Arena: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (former the Conseco Fieldhouse) previously held home games for the Ice and could be converted for hockey. The arena’s layout does lose a few seats, though, and it holds approximately 14,400 – and would be the league’s smallest venue.
  • Intangibles: Indianapolis is a great sports town. It is practically the capital of motorsports in the United States and the NFL’s Colts are very well supported. It also recently hosted the SuperBowl. That said, it’s unclear how well hockey could do. It is another city in the middle of the continent that has a fair amount of cities reasonably close, so travel wouldn’t be horrendous, but it’s unclear if it has any natural rivals among existing NHL cities.

There you have it. These are the five cities I judge best for the National Hockey League. Notables that didn’t make the cut for various reasons were Las Vegas, Hamilton and Cleveland. Which of these cities do you think would make the best new NHL market? Or is it a city not listed in the top five?

Ryan Pike
A native of the Stampede City, Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and as Managing Editor of FlamesNation.ca.
Ryan Pike
RT @calgaryherald: Johnson: Johnny Hockey’s parents enjoying week in Calgary #yyc #Flames http://t.co/mCJPNWtJw1 http://t.co/7EjAx2ykuN - 4 hours ago

64 Comments

  1. As a Kansas City resident, I can tell you that there is more than enough interest in bringing a hockey team to KC. The only problem would be finding an owner, as that is where the interest doesn’t exist. There is plenty of corporate money in and around the city, just need to get it together and get an ownership group. 

  2. Hartford.  I’m against expansion overall but if it was going to be anywhere the Whale should be back.

  3. Ramiro Rendón says:

    Houston should be #1 on the list for expansion or relocation.   Most hockey fans look at the troubles of Atlanta and Phoenix and then claim that all Sunbelt markets are the same. 
    Ottawa went bankrupt.  So did Buffalo.  So did my favorite team, the Penguins – twice.

    Chicago and Boston had terrible attendance not so long ago.  The Islanders and Devils have attendance problems and the Isles have a major arena problem.

    Dallas struggled because Tom Hicks got himself overextended in debt and had to file for bankruptcy himself.  The Stars aren’t doing so bad now. 

    Houston has the demographics, the arena, the hockey history that most dufuses refuse to acknowledge and should be a shoo in for a team.

  4. TeamCropDusters says:

    Milwaukee, Portland, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Hartford, and Mississauga all could sustain NHL teams…

  5. AndersSvensson says:

    No more expansions please, especially in  the direction of south. Relocations is most prudent way to solve the alignment and scheduling problems, eliminate ailing franchises, and make the league more competitive and priftable. My take on future teams and alignment:

    NORTHEAST – this may put a dent in the heated war with the Bruins, but hey still would clash 3-4 times a season. But it also would re-establish the rivalry with the Nordiques.

    Quebec (relo from Tampa)
    Montreal
    Toronto
    Ottawa
    Buffalo

    ATLANTIC – the least travalled division in NHL distance-wise

    NYR
    NYI
    Boston
    NJ
    Philadelphia

    SOUTHEAST – The addition of the Penguins puts more fire to the existing rivalry with the Caps at the expense of Flyers. The Blue Jackets will venture to the unnatural west no more and create a border fight with the Penguins.

    Pittsburgh
    Washington
    Columbus
    Carolina
    Florida

    NORTHWEST – The Canucks are in the double-whammy with Coastal and Canadian rivalries.

    Seattle (relo from Phoenix)
    Portland (relo from Nashville)
    Vancouver
    Calgary
    Edmonton

    CENTRAL – Sorry, Red Wings, you are in the west and Rust-Belt divison.

    Detroit
    Chicago
    Minnesota
    Winnipeg
    St. Louis

    PACIFIC – The Stars rack up those miles, just can’t help it.

    Colorado
    San Jose
    Anaheim
    Los Angeles
    Dallas

    • Relo from Nashville?  Really?  Team has sold out more than half it’s games and is doing something like 97% capacity and you wanna’ move them?

  6. hamilton, ONT.  A NHL team is exactly what this post-industrial city needs to get out of its slump.
    I am actually surprised you published an article saying KC, and Indy as top prospectus cities….

  7. Its also really easy to get four divisions by dropping two teams.  Why not say good-bye to pheonix and maybe dallas, or nashville, or florida, anywhere they are having trouble drawing fans and bleeding money.  It would also do another thing that has plagued the NHL, it would stop the dilution of talent.

  8. Chicagoland Kid says:

    The last thing any of the four major sports should do is expand … especially the N.H.L.!!! 

    These potentail markets need to be properly tested. Have the Vancouver Canucks play a one week / three game homestand in Seattle. If well received, give them a two week homestand the following season. All thirty N.H.L. teams will be “inconvenienced” equally.

    St. Louis to Kansas City, Chicago to Indianapolis or Milwaukee, etc…
    No more blindly dropping a team somewhere … as in Phoenix. 

  9. Only Seattle. Maybe Milwaukee. In terms of Small Markets, Hartford could be. No more Canadian small markets teams because in a long term, they will be struggled

  10. GREENCRACK11 says:

     the NHL should only add 2 more teams at first .. try to add them by 2014 .. in the future they should try to get it up to 36 teams

    i think at 1st they should give franchises to Milwaukee and Quebec City .. these cities will have big enough fan bases and hockey is already loved there

    divisions would be  =

     EASTERN CONFERENCE  –

    North East  –  QUEBEC CITY,  Montreal,  Toronto,  Ottawa,  Buffalo,  Boston, 
                                 New York Islanders,  New York Rangers

    Eastern  –  New Jersey,  Philadelphia,  Pittsburgh,  Columbus,  Washington, 
                          Carolina,  Tampa Bay,  Florida Panthers

    WESTERN CONFERENCE –

    Central   –  Detroit,  Chicago,  MILWAUKEE,  St Louis,  Minnesota,  Winnipeg,
                          Nashville,  Dallas

    West   –  Vancouver,  Calgary,  Edmonton,  Colorado,  Phoenix,  San Jose, 
                      Anaheim,  Los Angeles

                

     

    • Chicagoland Kid says:

      If anything the N.H.L. should contract. Not enough talent or cities to support the thirty teams they have now. 

  11. Hattrickz91_pt2 says:

    Vegas
    Milwaukee/Green Bay
    Anchorage…

    I would rather see a NHL team in Moscow or Berlin than Quebec…

  12. Portland has always supported Hockey!  Seattle never has so their WHL team is in Kent!

  13. shouldn’t Toronto get an NHL franshise before these cities???   bahahahahhaha

  14. LarryLurex70 says:

    KC shouldn’t be on this list as long as the Sprint Center is owned and operated by AEG, who also just happen to own the L.A. Kings and operate Staples Center. No way AEG divests from the L.A. market just to land a tenant for their building in KC.

  15. Well right now, only Seattle and Quebec make sense. Houston and Indianapolis are not hockey markets and Kansas City is not looking for a team, just check the article I wrote about it a few weeks ago: 
    http://thehockeywriters.com/the-phoenix-coyotes-moving-soon-yes-but-to-kansas-city-i-dont-think-so/

  16. Dr. Of Style says:

    Are you joking?  STOP TRYING TO PUT NHL TEAMS IN PLACES WHERE THEY WON”T BE SUPPORTED!  Hockey will not fly in Houston.  Or Indianapolis.  In Texas, they like football and baseball.  In Indiana, they like basketball.  It just will not work!  It’s the same reason why they don’t have NASCAR races in Winnipeg!

    •  There is  good support for hockey in indy. The Ice team  draws well  for a d-league team. Winter sports would work well here.

    • I woudn’t sell Houston short. You actually mentioned two good strong points: plenty of football and baseball fans to draw fans from. Damn near every hockey fan I know also follows football and baseball so the crossover potential is there. C’mon, if hockey works in NASHVILLE it can work in Houston. Plus alot of canadian expats in Houston ( working in the energy industry). No argument/totally agreement on Indianapolis. Its a minor league market as best and should be 10 on a list of cities/markets.

      • If it can work in Nashville, why not Houston?
        What about the problem of  flooding the market? 

        • flooding the market???? explain. You do know how far away Houston and Dallas are right?  Not to mention the only other team on the Gulf is Tampa.  And it does have a big stadium already built. Thats a big plus nowadays. Plus a deep football fan pool to draw new fans from. But only expand if the league reorganizes to 4 conferences and decides to add 2 franchises.  Houston and Seattle should be at the top of the list for the US. Quebec City will def be one, and Seattle or Houston should be the other.

  17. Hartford

  18. Agree on the first 4 choices but NO way on Indy. And agree that you need to add 2 teams to make things even in a 4 conference system. After that NO more expansion. Add Hamilton and Oakland to the list as viable NHL markets. And the Hurricanes should move to Charlotte.

  19. Anchorage, cause why not!

  20. Brooklyn???

    • If they had built that arena for hockey as well I would say yes but its too small. Shame too. Brooklyn wouldve been a great place to move the Islanders.

    • The development around the arena can offset the smaller capacity for Isles ownership.  Plus a smaller arena may be profitable as well if the team is winning because of supply and demand.  Before Brooklyn is written off let the Isles preseason and KHL games play out.  Arena asides Brooklyn offers many advantages that other cities cannot and it prevents a team from relocating.

  21. Indy? Really? Milwaukee would make waaay more sense as an outside chance (I too would think QC should get first dibs). Natural rivalries w/ the Blackhawks, Wild, and Blues.

  22. Sdboy1822002 says:

    San Diego !!!

    • makes for a excellent day dream, but no arena and no distant plans for one. maybe an arena could be grafted into the endless (but so far fruitless) plans for a new stadium? (there’s a lot of bayfront property in National City just waiting for something like this)

  23. Indianapolis??? no way!!  Milwaukee, although unlikely itself, has a MUCH better chance than Indy.

    •  My list would look more like:
      Quebec
      Seattle
      Kansas City
      Milwaukee
      …and then leave it at that

  24. Indianapolis currently does have an USHL team – the Indiana Ice.  They play a couple games a year at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but mostly play at the same dilapidated Coliseum at the state fairgrounds where Gretzky spent his few weeks with the Racers. They don’t draw super well – their site says their single season attendance record is 139,889 (for a 30 home date season) so I’d have a hard time imagining a NHL team doing well here. This town is all about the Colts and Indiana Univ. basketball, and to a lesser extent the NBA Pacers. Sure there’s a top notch arena and a large population, but I don’t think there’s much overlap between the motor sports demographic and hockey fans. I’d replace Indy with Portland and then your list looks perfect. 

  25. Portland Oregon

  26. Did you ever look up how much preseason NHL games draw in KC? This year it was barely over 4000. KC is awful.

    •  Really? That’s funny, since the game sold out and the Sprint Center seats over 17,000 for hockey. Not sure where you got your info, but it’s wrong.

    • I was at the game.  Well over 4,000.  Closer to about 13,000, which is decent for preseason.  Actually, I think they announced it as a sellout.

  27. Isn’t Charlotte the capital of motorsports? Indy racing is no longer a big deal.

  28. Boeing is now HQ’d in Chicago, btw. Not Seattle

    • Headquartered yes, but I would say Seattle is still its home. It’s really just corporate brass that is in Chicago.

  29. Quebec, Seattle, Milwaukee, Hartford,  Porland.  No more southern teams.  And Buffalo and Toronto will never let a team exist in Hamilton.

    •  Since Hamilton is a suburb of Toronto, and that metro area has 5.5 Million people to draw from (Hamilton itself is not listed as part of that metro area and has 721,000 people), and Canada is hockey mad, a team in Hamilton would work just fine.  Buffalo and Toronto would also survive.  Neither would have a say in what the NHL decides anyways.

  30. The very helpful Islanders blog New York Islanders Adrift (http://newyorkislandersadrift.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-i-think-hockey-would-look-like-at.html) has a bit more information on arena layouts in Indianapolis for hockey. The Bankers Life Fieldhouse, when set up for hockey, seats about 14,400. It is a bit lower than I had originally anticipated based on what other arenas lose when converting. It could still work, but the economics of the building and franchise would be somewhat strained.

  31. how do you not mention Hamilton?

    • Because it will never happen so long as the Leafs are in Toronto and the Sabres in Buffalo.  Sorry.

      • Agreed, Hamilton should not get a team. Buffalo and Toronto are too close. They should relocate PHX to QC.  If another team needs to eventually be relocated, Milwaukee should be the place. Wisconcin is a great Hockey market.

        • PHX isn’t going anywhere and if you do the same thing with PHX as was done with the 5 “prospective NHL cities” PHX would be right up top. Already has an arena, population growth expected to be the highest in the U.S., and plenty of big corporate companies to support if we can just get an owner!

        • the grass is blue and the sky is green in your world right? Pho will NEVER be a hockey city.

        • Seriously, People who aren’t from Phoenix don’t realize several things. There are a ton of hockey fans here, they just aren’t Coyotes fans. The team hasn’t consistently put a good product on the ice to compel the transplants to abandon their “hometeam” and support the Yotes. Shaun is right, the Phoenix Metropolitan area is the 14th largest in the U.S. and growing rapidly. There are over 4 million people in the immediate area. The arena is beautiful, but was built a little out of the way for the folks in the east valley. The economy has been particularly bad here, but it’s starting to come back. If the Detroit Redwings played here, I swear they would sell out every night. It can work here with the right management, and a winning team.

        •  What are the factors that put a city on the list?  The reason I ask is because here is what we have going on in Cleveland:

          -NHL Size Building – Quicken Loans Arena holds 19,000+ for hockey

          -NBA Cavs/AHL Lake Erie Monsters – both owned by Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert play at Quicken Loans Arena

          -Cleveland drawing NHL size crowds for the Lake Erie Monsters on weekends

          -Over 32 sheets of ice in the greater Cleveland area with over 60 high school teams and numerous state hockey championships to boast about

          -Rich hockey history but never a fair shake at NHL

          -Current and former NHLers from Cleveland include Mike Rupp, Dan Fritsche, Carter Camper, Brett Harkins, Todd Harkins, Ian Moran..

          – Revitalization in progress again as we speak, with a Casino (owned by Dan Gilbert) being built, medical mart being built, more people living downtown and business beginning to relocate to downtown Cleveland again

          – The Greater Cleveland Area is the largest metropolitan area in Ohio with over 2 million people..

  32. QC should be the first choice in any relocation/expansion plan. After that, Seattle makes a lot of sense. Really don’t see the allure of KC. The Scouts barely managed 50% attendance during their existence and the city has minimal hockey roots to speak of. Would rather see exploration of Madison/Milwaukee, S. Ontario, New England and Portland… 

    •  I’m not sure whether KC would be good or not, but to be fair, I believe the Scouts were either the worst or second worst team in league history. Kind of hard to draw fans when you’re that bad. And our CHL team has gotten fairly popular. Maybe it wouldn’t work now, but hockey does seem to be gaining popularity around here.

  33. Good top 5, glad to not see Saskatoon or Hamilton mentioned.  I’m fine with any of those 5 as long as Quebec is the first location to get a new team.  After that any of the other 4 would work. Follow me on twitter @SabreHess:twitter 

    • dame you sabres fans, sure you guys would not want hamilton to get a team….it would be better then yours in the first year….no one ever watchs the sabres….only reason u guys get fans at the games is because it is less then 50 of the cost  as apposed to going to toronto to watch a game….. get real

    • Brandon doesn’t know what he is talking about….Another team in the Canadian market would do really well! A team in Hamilton is exactly what the city needs to get it out of its post-industrial slump- and best of all it will sell out. 
      Sorry, but KC and Indy are terrible choices…I find it hard to believe that they could ever support a team- we are going to have Atlanta/Phoenix all over again…

  34. you invest your money in one of those markets, i’ll take my money and start a team in southern ontario.  who do you think will get more investors?

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