As we await the official arrival of Las Vegas to the NHL family, let’s look back on some of the times when the league seemed headed to a new home, only to have it fall through.
Wednesday is reportedly the day the NHL will confirm what we’ve all expected for months: The league is expanding to Las Vegas, becoming the first major pro sports team to take up residence in the city. That will no doubt come as a relief to hockey fans in Vegas, since history has shown that new NHL teams have a way of falling through. The league’s expansion era began in 1967, and has seen the league continue to grow ever since. But it’s history of near-misses dates back even further, and includes some cases where a new team seemed to be all but a sure thing. So today, as we await the official arrival of Las Vegas to the NHL family, let’s look back on some of the times when the league seemed headed to a new home, only to have it fall through.
1952: Cleveland The NHL’s roster of teams remained unchanged for 25 years between 1942 and 1967, a period of time that every fan now knows as The Original Six Era. Those six teams serve as the league’s foundation to this day, with a celebrated history and tradition that the league actively embraces and promotes. Which may be why it’s been all but forgotten that at one point, that group was supposed to become an Original Seven. Back in the early 50s, pro hockey was booming in Ohio thanks to the AHL’s Cleveland Barons. By 1952, the team had set its sight on a move to the NHL, which was open to adding a seventh team. The Barons’ application for membership was received, debated and
formally accepted by the NHL’s board of governors. But that approval came with a catch: The Barons had to secure funding, an amount
later reported to be in the $500,000 range. They failed to do so, and the deal fell apart. Barons attendance eventually faltered, and the team
fell on hard times as the years went by, eventually moving to Jacksonville in 1973. The NHL did eventually come to Cleveland, relocating the California Golden Seals in 1976 and reviving the Barons name. That move ended up
being a disaster, lasting for just two years; the team folded in 1978, making it the last franchise in North American major pro sports to do so.
1967: Baltimore Most fans know the details of the 1967 expansion that ended the Original Six era, doubling the league to 12 teams and welcoming Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Oakland. Despite some early bumps in the road, including a ridiculous new format that put all the rookie teams into the same division, the 1967 expansion was reasonably successful. Only the Oakland franchise failed, with the other five still being reasonably successful NHL markets to this day. But while the NHL was settling on those six cities, they were also working on a backup plan. And wisely so – it was far from a sure thing that all six teams would be able to get off the ground. The Blues in particular seemed dicey; the city had been included at the insistence of the ownership group in Chicago, and the franchise was awarded conditionally despite the fact that the league
hadn’t received any actual applications from groups wanting to own a team there. And so the league hedged its bets by announcing a Plan B, and the B stood for Baltimore. The city was a finalist, and while the bid was temporarily rejected, the league determined that if St. Louis or any other team failed to get off the ground, Baltimore
would be tapped as the replacement. That never happened, with the league eventually finding an ownership group for what became the Blues and the rest of the teams meeting their obligations in time for the 1967-68 season. Baltimore was mentioned as a candidate for the 1970 and 1972 expansions, but didn’t get a team, and the birth of the Washington Capitals in 1974
essentially spelled the end of the city’s chances of joining the NHL.
1974: Seattle That 1974 expansion wasn’t exactly the NHL’s most successful; the Capitals were legendarily bad for years before finally gaining a footing, while the Kansas City Scouts only lasted two years before moving the Colorado and later New Jersey. But as those two teams were getting set to make their debut, the league was busy rounding out its expansion roadmap. Next stop: Seattle. The league even made a formal announcement in June of 1974, with the new team set to begin play in 1976. But the ownership situation
was a complicated one, involving the Seattle Totems of the Western Hockey League, who were partly owned by the Vancouver Canucks. That left potential expansion owner Vince Abbey with several financial hurdles to clear prior to icing a team. He failed to do so, and the NHL rescinded the expansion offer in 1975. Abbey went on to sue the league over the whole mess. The NHL’s dance with the Northwest has continued ever since. Seattle was mentioned as a
landing spot for the Seals in 1976, and for the
Capitals in 1982, and the league was rumored to be eyeing Tacoma for
much of the early 80s. Seattle also factored prominently in virtually all of the league’s expansion adventures from 1990 right through to today’s, with rumors that the NHL had been hoping to receive a bid to pair with Las Vegas. The city has a history with hockey, including America’s first ever Stanley Cup
win in 1917, but as of today it remains the league’s longest running expansion bridesmaid.
1992: Milwaukee After taking the 1980s off, the NHL’s expansion machine roared back to life in the early 90s, with its sights set on adding teams in time for the 1992-93 season. And in addition to the usual suspects such as Seattle, Hamilton and Houston, one city emerged as an early favorite, bordering on a sure thing: Milwaukee. The bid seemed to
check all of the NHL’s boxes. The city had a state-of-the-art building in the Bradley Center, which they would have shared with the NBA’s Bucks. They’d proven they would support pro hockey, hosting one of the IHL’s most successful franchise for years. And there was a solid ownership group in place, led by Lloyd Petit. But in October, 1990, Petit’s group stunned the NHL by
dropping out of the process, citing concerns with the $50 million fee and the league’s insistence on an expansion draft format that would virtually ensure that new teams would struggle to get off the ground. Milwaukee remained a top candidate for NHL expansion for several years, based largely in the
strength of their arena. But that advantage faded over time, as did the city’s place in the league’s future sights; it wasn’t a serious player when the league went back to the expansion well in the late-90s. Despite reports that Milwaukee could be a contender
during the most recent round, a bid never gained steamed.
1997: Hampton Roads, Virginia This may be the strangest bid on the list, which is why we’re willing to stretch the definition of “near miss” just a little bit to include it. While it sounds farfetched in hindsight, the underdog bid to bring the NHL to Norfolk, Virginia had plenty going for it, including a strong ownership group led by Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn and plans for a state-of-the-art arena. And while the area didn’t have much history of supporting major pro sports franchises, they’d had a reasonably successful ECHL club in the Hampton Roads Admirals. Most memorably, they already had a name (the Rhinos), a color scheme (purple and teal were prominently involved) and
a rumored logo. The Hampton Roads Rhinos even had a mascot – a rhino named (what else?) Rhockey. The entire package was presented to the NHL, reportedly leaving many in the league impressed with Shinn’s vision. Sadly, the NHL didn’t feel like playing along with the fun,
shutting down Shinn’s bid in February of 1997. There was occasional talk of reviving attempts at landing a big league team
in subsequent years, but they never got off the ground. Sadly, at this time, it seems as if the odds of Rhockey the purple and teal rhinoceros ever skating onto an NHL rink are slim.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.