An Overview of NHL Expansion Part One: How We Got Here


This is the first installment of a three-part series on NHL Expansion.

When the National Hockey League granted the city of Nashville a franchise in 1997, many in the hockey community scoffed. They thought hockey would never work in the Sun Belt. They were wrong.

Today, the Predators are one of the most promising teams in the NHL, both in terms of team performance and popularity. The Predators have made the

Fans enter Bridgestone Arena before a game. The Predators have developed a strong fanbase. Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

playoffs in all but one season between 2004 and 2012. They had higher average attendance in 2013-14 than the Winnipeg Jets, a team located in a market with some of the NHL’s most passionate fans.

The Predators’ success flies in the face of the naysayers who maintained that the NHL was expanding too fast. Since Gary Bettman took over as NHL commissioner in 1993, the league has extended its reach outside of traditional hockey markets in the North, Midwest and Canada – where the game has been a sports staple for generations – and into markets like Miami, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Columbus, Atlanta, Anaheim and San Jose.

In addition, other teams decamped from very traditional markets and settled in territories that were relatively uncharted where hockey was concerned. The Minnesota North Stars bolted south to Dallas in 1993. In 1995, the Quebec Nordiques packed up and moved to Colorado, where they were rechristened the Avalanche. The Winnipeg Jets relocated to the Phoenix area in 1996 and became the Coyotes. The Hartford Whalers, facing a battle with the city government over a new arena, moved to North Carolina in 1997 and become the Hurricanes.

A lot of these new teams have had plenty of financial and on-ice success. The Stars, Ducks, Lightning, and

People in California have taken to hockey, says Steve Griggs, President of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Hurricanes have all won Stanley Cups in the past 20 years.

While Bettman has not been directly responsible for all of these moves, he has been a strong proponent of expansion. As a result, the league has reached new financial heights. In 2013, the average NHL team was worth $413 million, a 46 percent increase from the previous year, according to Forbes.

That financial success is why most in the hockey community only see the upside of expansion. Mike Sundheim, vice president of communications for the Carolina Hurricanes, said that the trend is good for teams in markets without many other activities.

“You have to be in the right places,” Sundheim said. “In Raleigh, we’re the only major professional sports team. Raleigh has a lot of Northern transplants, and a lot of our Southern fans have learned the game as well.”

But even in event-packed markets like Southern California, the NHL is gaining a foothold. Steve Griggs, president of the Tampa Bay Lightning, points to the successes of California franchises like the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, despite the wealth of sports activity on the West Coast. “The Sharks and the Ducks have helped grow the youth sports in those markets, and there’s lots of fans there now,” Griggs said. “They’ve started to love the sport of hockey out there.”

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Frank Brown, group vice president of communications for the NHL, gave several reasons for the success of teams in non-traditional markets.

“First, with the passage of time, with generations of parents bringing their children to the games, more people become aware of hockey’s availability,” Brown said via email. “Second, fans are passionate, and positive results—such as the Stanley Cup Championships in Anaheim and Dallas—can accelerate the process. Third, the availability of the game on television is a factor. We have more (and better) national TV coverage in the United States of our League than any other time in our history. Fourth, innovations such as the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and other major events have drawn added attention to our league.”

Not all of these Sun Belt teams have been an unqualified success, however. After years of poor performance and

The Florida Panthers have not been as successful as other expansion franchises. Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

low attendance, the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The team’s consistently poor performance ultimately led to their demise.

“In any pro sports franchise, eventually you have to win,” said Matt McConnell, the former play-by-play announcer for the Thrashers and current announcer for the Arizona Coyotes. “Atlanta only played four playoff games in their entire 13-year existence. As time went on, the team got better on paper, but they never made the playoffs except for one season.”

The Florida Panthers have also had their fair share of challenges. They made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but have only made the playoffs once since then. The team had the second-worst attendance in the NHL last season. Now, Broward County has hired a consultant to determine the feasibility of letting the Panthers leave Florida, according to Mayor Barbara Sharief.

Pete Weber, the play-by-play announcer for the Predators who has been around the NHL for over 30 years, points to arena location as a big reason why Florida has not had as much success as Nashville. The Panthers play in the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, which is a 30-minute drive from downtown Miami.

“In Nashville, the arena is right downtown,” Weber said. “Sunrise is not exactly in the heart of things. It’s regrettable that they weren’t able to work with the Miami Heat to build one facility downtown.”

Weber also blamed the difficulties of the Panthers, as well as the Thrashers, on the prominence of already-existing activities in the markets.

“Miami and Atlanta might be the two most difficult cities in which to sell hockey tickets.”

Stay tuned for the second installment in the series, focusing on the winning formula for expansion success.