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Get used to rumors about NHL relocation, expansion to Seattle or Portland

The Coyotes called reports of the organization exploring area options in Seattle and Portland “completely false” and a “fabrication.” Even the team doesn’t move, though, expect rumors to persist about the Pacific Northwest landing a team.

How many times in the past five or six seasons have we heard about potential relocation for the Arizona Coyotes? Four times, five times, half a dozen or more? First, it was the near-continuous talk about a potential relocation to Hamilton, which gave way to whispers about the team packing up and heading to Quebec City. Heck, there’s even been a question here or there about the viability of the team in Kansas City.

That's why you won’t find many hockey fans shocked to hear yet another rumor about a potential change of scenery for the Coyotes, this time to either Seattle or Portland.

This talk of relocation was spurred on by the Glendale Star, stating that members of the Coyotes organization have toured locations in Seattle and Portland over the past few months, per local officials. In the time since the report was released, however, the Coyotes have made it abundantly clear that no such tours have taken place.

"Recent reports by the Glendale Star that the Coyotes ownership group has explored arena options outside the Arizona market are completely false,” Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said in a statement. “The Star referenced an anonymous arena source and an anonymous Coyotes source, and these are a fabrication…We are fully committed to Arizona.”

With Arizona State University pulling out of a proposed arena deal with the Coyotes, it’s no wonder some have begun to again question how long the team will last in Arizona, and that Seattle and, to a lesser extent, Portland have become the latest cities at the center of the Coyotes relocation drama isn’t without reason. 

For the better part of the past two years, Seattle has been attempting to land itself a new arena, and it’s considered one of the most intriguing markets not currently occupied by an NHL team. Seattle has been a locale many have kept an eye on since the first murmurs of the 2017-18 expansion came, and it was somewhat surprising not to have an owner step up and make an offer to land a franchise for the city when the expansion process began. Portland doesn’t quite fall into the same category, but the proximity to Seattle and location in the Pacific Northwest seems to check enough boxes.

And while there’s no fire to this smoke yet, one can rest assured that this is only the first of many rumors about potential relocation or further expansion to Seattle, Portland or another viable market in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s why:

It’s ready-made to host the NHL:

The NHL’s focus on building the game in the southern United States has, for the most part, paid off. Teams in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose have been successful, the Lightning have hit their stride in Tampa Bay and the Panthers are starting to make it work in Florida. Then you have successful franchises in Dallas and Nashville, too. The Hurricanes are running into some trouble in Carolina, sure, and the Coyotes have been a headache for much of the past decade, it’s true, but the NHL’s batting average in the south isn’t looking all that bad.

But all of those markets, from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay, weren’t hockey markets that had long histories with the game. Seattle, however, does. As does Portland, Spokane, Everett and Kennewick, Wash., all of which play host to WHL teams. Four of those teams have existed for close to three decades, and the Silvertips have called Everett home for more than 10 years at this point.

Not everyone is going to travel great distances to get to a game 41 times a year, but that hockey-loving population certainly helps support the team. You can almost guarantee that the team wouldn’t struggle to fill the building on a nightly basis.

And the big one when it comes to being ready for the league to make its move to the Pacific Northwest is the size of the television market. It is, after all, a business. The Seattle-Tacoma TV market was ranked 14th in 2016 by Nielsen, two spots behind Phoenix, and Portland was ranked 24th. Together, the Seattle and Portland markets make up more than 2.5 percent of the US. That’s the rough equivalent of Philadelphia’s market size, and putting a team anywhere in the Pacific Northwest is sure to draw viewers.

Providing the league balanced conferences:

It certainly wasn’t the league’s biggest concern when it came to expansion, but there had to be at least some thought given to what would happen should the league also place a team in Quebec City. Already, the conferences are unbalanced, with 16 teams playing in the East and 14 in the West, with a 15th on the way when the Vegas Golden Knights begin play.

The solution, then, would be to either add a new team in the West to push the league to 32 teams with an even split — 16 teams apiece — in both conferences. Alternatively, relocation to, say, Seattle would leave the league with a mere one-team disparity between the East and the West. That’s better than being split by two teams.

It might not matter all that much on the surface, but levelling out the conferences makes schedule building that much easier and it creates an even playing field for each team. Right now, the Western Conference teams benefit from having to battle through two fewer teams in order to make the post-season. That gives Eastern Conference clubs worse odds at making it to the post-season, and there’s an argument to be made that each season there’s at least one team in the East that could have snuck into the post-season if they had been playing in a 15-team conference.

Creating a natural rivalry in the Northwest:

The Oilers have the Flames, while the Kings, Ducks and Sharks have a three-way dance. Come next season, Vegas and Arizona are set to battle it out in the Pacific for control of the desert. And up there in the corner, sitting alone on the coast, are the Canucks.

Vancouver has had its rivalries throughout the years, most recently with the Bruins following the Stanley Cup meeting between the two teams, but Boston being in the East, that rivalry faded quite fast. There was a more fierce tete-a-tete that seemed to last years between the Blackhawks and Canucks, but with Chicago going one way and Vancouver the other, even that has died down despite the teams remaining in the same conference.

But a team in Pacific Northwest? That’s a natural rival for the Canucks, and proximity almost always breeds contempt. Take a look at Flyers and Penguins or the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. Those two rivalries have existed for years and players have become legends for their play in regular season meetings or playoff series between the rival clubs. Rivalries have given the league some of its best moments, so much so that we’ve gotten to the point where there’s a rivalry night each week. It falls flat when it’s the Penguins against the Blue Jackets, though.

There’s a natural rivalry to be had in the Pacific Northwest for the Canucks, and it would be something the league could immediately sell. Vegas is intriguing because it’s new and the Golden Knights will be the first professional team in the city, but Seattle or Portland could be exciting because we’ll get a cross-border clash.

Of course, these three reasons alone won’t be enough for the league to put a team in the Pacific Northwest. There’s still a matter of an arena, an owner and a hefty sum of money, but don’t expect the talk of a team in Oregon or Washington State to settle down any time soon. It was the Coyotes today, it could be the Hurricanes tomorrow and expansion the next. The market is there, it's intriguing and it might be only a matter of time before the NHL finds its way into Seattle.

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