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?