Now that Seattle has been awarded a NHL expansion franchise to begin play in the 2021-2022 season the question inevitably turns to ‘who’s next?’. It’s never easy to figure out where and when the NHL will expand next. The NHL (and every other sports league for that matter) is maddeningly opaque on the subject of expansion. Ditto the concept of team relocation though NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has demonstrated that he views that as a ‘last ditch’ solution. That’s why there are still hockey teams in Florida and Phoenix and not in Quebec City and Hamilton.
What is clear is that there are still a number of cities that would like a NHL hockey team but don’t have one. The Vegas Golden Knights demonstrated that an expansion team doesn’t have to struggle for years before they establish competitive traction. This makes the notion of starting a team from scratch much more palatable. It’s also clear that there are several teams that are candidates for relocation either due to ownership issues, venue issues or some combination thereof.
That leaves us to conclude that at some point before too long a city that currently has no NHL hockey team will get one. There has also been considerable speculation of late that the long term goal for the NHL is a 40 team league. You’ll never get NHL Commissioner Betmann to admit this is the case but there has been a considerable amount written on the topic. The general idea is for a suitable market for NHL hockey to have someone in the area willing to scratch out the $650 million check for a franchise fee. That means that some markets might look like a good ‘fit’ for hockey but are unlikely to be on a short list for expansion due to no one stepping up to bankroll it. Then there’s the matter of hockey’s relative popularity in Canada and the USA. Given the greater density of hockey fans in Canada a smaller market is better able to support a team than in the United States.
We’ll start with evaluating the US markets. Of the top five metro areas three are likely not under consideration–that would be Atlanta (two time losers already), San Diego (Southern California already has two teams) and Baltimore (probably too close to DC). That leaves from the top five Houston and Portland. Houston already has a lot going for it including market size, a thriving economy and a NHL ready arena. Houston Rockets’ owner Tilman Ferttita appears interested in buying a franchise to the point that he’s already taken meetings with Gary Bettman. There are already articles in the Houston media speculating on what the team name will be. For Houston, the vibe isn’t so much ‘if we get a team’ as ‘when will it happen’.
Portland and Salt Lake City are a couple of other US cities that would be a good fit for the league–and particularly with teams in Las Vegas and Seattle. Soccer fans are well aware that the rivalry between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver might be the best in the sport and probably the most underrated in all sports. Generally speaking, these cities don’t like each other and a ‘Cascadia Cup’ rivalry in hockey would likely feel some of the same intensity. Portland has ridiculously passionate sports fans and a NHL ready arena (the Moda Center, home of the Portland Trailblazers). Salt Lake City might not have the history of a soccer rivalry but it’s a growing city with passionate sports fans, a strong economic base and a NHL ready arena. Drop a team in Salt Lake City and all of a sudden you can have regional rivalry games with Colorado, Phoenix and Vegas.
The quality of US cities drops quickly after that. We’ll throw Hartford into the mix–it’s proven to be a great hockey town and it would be awesome to see the Whalers in the NHL again. The problem could be opposition from the Boston Bruins plus the current arena option in Hartford is probably not up to snuff for a NHL team. The XL Center holds roughly 15,500 for hockey which would make it the smallest arena in the league right out of the gate. Kansas City has already lost one NHL team (the Kansas City Scouts) and there’s no apparent financial backing at the moment. Milwaukee gets name dropped a lot due to the popularity of hockey in Wisconsin but once again there’s no apparent financial backing on hand. They do have an arena that would probably work–the Fiserv Forum where the Milwaukee Brewers play. Here’s something interesting–Austin, Texas is the largest city in the country without a ‘Big Four’ pro sports team (NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL). There’s not much to suggest that they’re a viable candidate–they don’t have even a temporary venue, they won’t get a team over Houston and Austin as a whole has a weird vibe. They like to pretend that they’re still a quirky small college town and have a real anti-progress mindset. They don’t even want Uber in town, let alone a NHL team.
In Canada, the obvious choice is Quebec City which has history and a NHL ready arena (the Centre Videotron holds 18,259 for hockey). They had a team before but the Nordiques left for Denver at a time when several Canadian teams were in dire straits due to economic conditions and the weakness of the currency. Relative currency strength of the Canadian vs. US dollar is still a potential issue today.
A few years ago Nate Silver of the political data site 538 published a study on hockey in Canada and concluded that the country is likely undeserved with the number of teams relative to demand. The whole thing is worth reading but one interesting conclusion is that the ‘Golden Horseshoe’ area of Ontario could probably support two more teams. Hamilton would be a natural location for one though any new team in the area could be fought by either (or both) Toronto or Buffalo under NHL bylaws.
It’s a very complex ecosystem but there’s no doubt that at some point the NHL will add another team and/or another team will relocate. Here are the official SPORTS INSIDER odds on where that team will be.
Next City To Get A NHL Hockey Team Betting Odds
Quebec City +450
Salt Lake City +1000
Kansas City +5000
Any Other City +10000