In spite of an owner-triggered, wholly needless lockout, the NHL has never enjoyed more support in Canada than it does today. Canada again has seven franchises and more crazed hockey fans than ever before. Now, not only do teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs sell out their buildings without much effort, they also can invite thousands of people to sit outside arenas to watch games on a giant-screen TV and watch them happily rush to fill the space.
That being said, the sense the NHL has some type of anti-Canada bias still bubbles not far from the fore of some fans’ minds. And the easiest way for that mindset to boil over again is if the league includes Seattle ahead of Quebec City or a second team in Southern Ontario in its next round of expansion.
Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves and start pricing out Groupon bulk purchases of pitchforks and torches, let’s be clear – we’re only hearing media speculation and vague league comments regarding Seattle as an NHL expansion destination.
But the idea Seattle is somehow more deserving of a franchise than Quebec City or Southern Ontario stretches the limits of credulity like a hot credulity yoga class. Yes, Seattle has the closest thing resembling an NHL-caliber rink, but if you’ve seen the decrepit Key Arena lately, you’d have to agree it’s not all that close.
The reality is none of the three potential expansion areas are currently equipped to handle an NHL team without experiencing bumps in the road. Indeed, there would be growing pains and Band-Aid solutions for all three regions until modern arenas are built. But ask yourself this: which two of those three areas could all but guarantee sellout crowds every night? Which two have hockey deeply embedded in their local culture? Which two wouldn’t need any assistance from the NHL’s revenue-sharing program?
(Hint for answering all those questions: It’s not Seattle.)
But put aside the impact that would be felt on cities and Hockey-Related Revenue if Canada only got one expansion team. From a strictly selfish ownership perspective, it also doesn’t make financial sense to expand to Seattle ahead of two underserviced Canadian markets. Hockey insiders have estimated the league could seek expansion franchise fees in the hundreds of millions for each Canadian team; prominent agent Allan Walsh estimated the number could reach $500 million – per Canadian expansion team. Can you imagine someone in Seattle ponying up that amount of money? I can’t. Even the dollar amount quoted in the aforementioned report was $275 million for a Seattle expansion franchise; this seems extremely excessive.
None of this is to say the Pacific Northwest can’t support NHL hockey. Under the right circumstances a team in Seattle could thrive. But a better solution for that city is to land a relocated franchise. That’s why Seattle was mentioned and will likely still be mentioned as a new home for the Phoenix Coyotes – a team that, surprise-surprise, is already rumored to have issues with its latest ownership group. The price of acquiring a relocated team would be far lower (the Winnipeg Jets paid some $60-million to the league in 2011) than an expansion fee. And remember, all expansion and relocation monies don’t have to be shared with NHL players. The league would be foolish to short shrift itself by leaving out a Canadian market in favor of Seattle.
Moreover, if the NHL left either Quebec or Southern Ontario on the sidelines again while welcoming another American team into the fold, it would reignite feelings that anti-Canadian attitudes permeate league headquarters. I don’t believe that commissioner Gary Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly have any ill will towards Canada. But if they decide it’s more of a priority for Seattle to receive a team than it is for Quebec to finally secure a replacement for the Nordiques – or that Southern Ontario is still undeserving of having two teams, while a region like New York City gets to have three – the NHL will earn deserved, emotional criticism from a fan base that still feels slighted.
The NHL absolutely needs continued growth in the United States to keep the game alive and vibrant, but the lifeblood of the operation flows north of American’s upper border. And turning away a willing plasma donator in Quebec City or Southern Ontario – even for the majestic beauty of Seattle – would only result in more bad Canadian blood toward the league.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.