With the NHL poised to commit to its 10th expansion effort since 1967, there is not much point debating whether this will be good or bad for hockey fans.
At best, it might not be that bad. Most believe shrinking the league would be a much better idea.
Still, the league is expected to increase to 32 teams with the addition of Quebec City and Las Vegas at an expected franchise fee of $500 million per team, although expansion won’t be announced next week at the league’s board of governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., and the league hasn’t announced a timetable.
Expansion has always been a risky business. Of the 25 clubs added since 1967, eight failed outright and moved to greener pastures. Only two of the top eight teams in the Forbes ranking of franchise values are former expansion franchises — Original Six teams take up the top five spots — and such relocated clubs as Dallas, Calgary and Colorado rank above many of the league-chosen expansion sites.
1967: Doubling in size
Additions: Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers
Price: $2 million per team
Result: This was the NHL’s first big attempt to expand from the Original Six. Strangely, it put all of the six new teams in their own division, creating competitive imbalance for several seasons. Out of that group, only the Flyers have been a consistently strong franchise, although the Penguins finally achieved a measure of stability in 2005 with the drafting of Sidney Crosby and the building of a new arena. That said, the franchise is currently for sale. The Seals were a disaster immediately and moved to Cleveland in 1976 before ultimately merging with the North Stars. Minnesota moved to Dallas in 1993. The Blues, bankrupt or in deep trouble several times, were nearly sold to Saskatoon in 1983.
1970: Shuffling off to Buffalo … and the Pacific
Additions: Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres
Price: $6 million per team
Result: Both teams have stayed put in their original markets for 45 years. Both have yet to win the Stanley Cup. The Sabres struggled with insolvency in the early part of this century but survived, and are now on solid ground after being bought by billionaire Terry Pegula, who also owns the NFL Buffalo Bills. The Canucks were in serious financial trouble around the turn of the century, but have also survived and are on solid ground.
1972: Future champions, Future Calgarians
Additions: New York Islanders, Atlanta Flames
Price: $6 million per team (Islanders also paid $4 million to infringe on Rangers territory)
Result: The Islanders, playing out of Uniondale, Long Island, ultimately developed a dynasty and won four consecutive Cups. The team became troubled financially in the 1990s, and moved to Brooklyn this season. The Flames drew 10,000 fans a game in their final season and moved to Calgary in 1980.
1974: One survivor, one quick death
Additions: Washington Capitals, Kansas City Scouts
Price: $6 million per team
Result: The Scouts were another expansion disaster, drawing 8,218 in only two seasons of operation then pulling up stakes and moving to Denver. That team only lasted until 1982 when it moved east to become the New Jersey Devils. The Caps only became successful after being purchased by Ted Leonsis in 1999 and have become one of the NHL’s marquee teams.
1979: Dancing around the ashes
Additions: Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers
Price: $7.5 million per team ($1.5 million each to the Cincinnati Stingers, Birmingham Bulls)
Result: This was the result of the hasty merger between the NHL and the World Hockey Association, a way for the NHL to rid itself of a rival league and competition for players. Ultimately, only the Oilers survived and flourished, winning five Stanley Cups. Quebec moved to Denver in 1995, Winnipeg moved to Phoenix in 1996 and Hartford moved to Greensboro, North Carolina in 1997, and then to Raleigh.
1991: Returning to the Bay Area
Addition: San Jose Sharks
Price: $45 million
Result: George and Gordon Gund, who had once owned the Oakland Seals, were owners of the North Stars but wanted to move the team to San Jose. Instead, the league allowed them to sell their interest in Minnesota (Norm Green ultimately became the new owner), gave them an expansion team in San Jose and allowed them to take some of their North Star players with them through a dispersal draft. The Sharks have been a hit since they began play out of the Cow Palace in San Francisco, but have never made it to a Stanley Cup final.
1992: Should have been Hamilton
Additions: Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning
Price: $45 million per team
Result: Hamilton had committed fans, a suitable arena and a deep-pocketed owner, but when Ron Joyce balked at paying the expansion fee up front, Ottawa and Tampa got the nod instead. Both the Senators and Lightning were admitted despite neither having a new arena to play out of, and suffered financially for years. Ottawa went bankrupt in 2003 and still, according to owner Eugene Melnyk, lose upwards of $20 million per year. Tampa, once owned by Japanese investors, have acquired a measure of stability in recent years under new owner Jeff Vinik, who has grand plans for the area surrounding his team’s arena in downtown Tampa. But the team still loses money.
1993: Going a little goofy
Additions: Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Florida Panthers
Price: $50 million per team ($25 million of Ducks fee went to L.A. owner Bruce McNall)
Result: The Panthers were initially owned by Blockbuster video magnate Wayne Huizenga and made the Stanley Cup final in 1996. But Huizenga soon tired of the hockey business. The Panthers have missed post-season play in 17 of their 21 seasons and for years have been one of the NHL’s worst teams in terms of home attendance. Anaheim was initially owned by Disney as a means of promoting the Mighty Ducks movie franchise. The team has had many ups and downs at the gate and competitively, although it won a Cup in 2007.
1998-2000: Back to old markets
Additions: Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers
Price: $80 million per team
Result: The league took a staggered approach, beginning with Nashville in ’98, then Atlanta (again) in ’99, and finally Columbus and Minny (again) for the 1999-2000 season. Nashville has struggled to survive, and Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie tried to buy the team in 2007 and move it to Hamilton. The Thrashers, meanwhile, lasted until 2011, longer than the Flames made a go of it, but once again Atlanta didn’t embrace the NHL and the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. The Wild had their struggles, but are currently very successful and profitable. The outlook for this franchise is better than it ever was for the North Stars. The Jackets, meanwhile, fill their building to about 80 per cent capacity and have never won a playoff series.