By Rob Ficiur
This past week the NHL officially announced that the league will be expanding into Las Vegas. This marks the sixth phase of NHL expantion since the league was created in 1917. Each NHL expansion phase has its own unique story of who was added and who was rejected or delayed:
1917-1918: The Original Four – The NHL was originally formed in 1917. Three owners of NHA (National Hockey Association) teams (Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers and Ottawa Senators) were in dispute with the owner of the Toronto Blue Shirts. The three teams had intended their new league to last only one year, after which they would revive the NHA. The Montreal Wanderers dissolved before the season was over.
Roaring Twenties – In the 1920’s the six expansion teams included: Boston, Montreal Maroons, New York Americans, Chicago Black Hawks, New York Rangers, Detroit Cougars and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The $12 – $15 thousand dollars these expansion teams paid is the equivalent of about $160,000 in 2016 dollars. (That is much cheaper than the $500 million Las Vegas is paying). The Pirates eventually moved to Philadelphia before they folded in 1931; the Ottawa Senators moved to ST. Louis and then folded in 1935. The NY Americans folded in 1941.
The Next Six – For more than 20 years the NHL remained the same “original” six teams that were in place after World War 2. By the early 1960’s the NHL knew that if they wanted a major USA television contract they would have to expand beyond the eastern based teams they had. Six teams were added, three in each of the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones. In the February 16, 2016 Commentator I wrote an in depth article about the 1967 expansion.
Vancouver, Buffalo, Cleveland, Baltimore and Louisville Kentucky had hoped to get an expansion team as well. Doubling the size of the NHL was not enough to make everyone happy.
1970’s Two by Two – Every two years, starting in 1970-71 the NHL expanded by two teams. Vancouver and Buffalo (1970) had hoped to joined back in 1967; the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames (1972) added another team in New York and a southern USA; and in 1974 the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts added two areas without NHL hockey. By this last expansion the NHL’s talent pool was being diluted by a new professional league the World Hockey Association.
WHA Competition and Merger – In the 1972-73 season the brand new WHA lured 67 NHL players as they started their league with 12 teams. By 1974-75 the WHA had fourteen teams. The WHA’s 14 and the NHL’s 18 teams meant there were 32 professional hockey teams in North America in 1975 where there had been six teams ten years earlier.
In the NHL the California Seals moved to become the Cleveland Barons. Two years later (1978) that team folded because there was no buyer. The WHA began losing teams as well. The Minnesota Fighting Saints folded half way through the 1976-77 season. The WHA began its final season with seven teams. On December 15, 1978 the Indianapolis Racers folded leaving them with six.
The NHL merger with four of the remaining six WHA teams; brought NHL to 21 teams.
Millennial Expansion – For the next twelve years the NHL remained with 21 teams. After Wayne Gretzky brought hockey to the front page of California the NHL looked at expanding to the southern USA. From 1992 to 2002 the NHL expanded by nine teams; six of which were in the southern USA.
These nine new teams have struggled on and off the ice. The Atlanta Thrashers eventually moved to Winnipeg. Tampa Bay and Anaheim are the only Millennial expansion teams to win a Stanley Cup.
Future Expansion – The NHL has chosen to expand again in the 2017-2018 season in Las Vegas. A new arena is already open and ready. So is an owner with the dollars to support a struggling franchise (for a few years).
Quebec City had applied for a franchise as well. The NHL said that the low Canadian dollar was a factor in not approving Quebec’s expansion application at this time. It is rumored that teams in Carolina and Florida are having money problems. If the financial issues of one of these teams makes moving a necessity Quebec City is still available to transfer a team.
In future years Seattle and Toronto may be sites for future expansion. The Seattle Metropolitans won the 1917 Stanley Cup champion Metropolitans on home ice. Before Seattle gets a new NHL team they will need a new arena. Some in hockey crazy Toronto think that there are enough fans for a second NHL team.
Are there enough talented players to create 31 or more teams? In 1967, 96% of all NHL players came from Canada. In 2016 the number fell to an all-time low of 49%. The current NHL has players from around the world, eager and ready to play. Las Vegas spent $500 million dollars. They are gambling that there will be enough talented players to make hockey grow in Nevada.