Top NHL Relocation/Expansion Cities

Winnipeg is getting an NHL team back, but they may not be the only ones in the coming years. Here are several cities that could become major players for hockey teams in the near future.

With the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, I haven't been able to help myself from thinking of other places that will be itching to get the NHL to set up shop. Another reason I've been thinking of this is should a team like Phoenix relocate East, it could screw up any realignment the NHL goes through next year (namely, crushing the dreams of Red Wings fans hoping to do the same). 

It doesn't help my obsession with the topic much when so many teams are in trouble:

Phoenix Coyotes: Currently owned by the league, the city of Glendale agreed to swallow the team's operating losses for another year.

Florida Panthers: They consistently average about 15,000 fans and have had mediocre to above average seasons, but they've only qualified for the playoffs once since their magical Stanley Cup run in 1996.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Barely around for ten years, the club is bleeding money and is already being talked about for relocation.

New York Islanders: It's hard to believe a one-time dynasty that won four straight Cups in the early 80s would be in this much trouble. That said, if a new arena deal goes through things instantly look brighter for this squad.

Which teams move, if any, remains to be seen. Expansion is not on the NHL's agenda for the foreseeable future, so relocation is the best bet for the following towns. So here we go; no countdowns, we're starting right from the top.

1. Quebec City

NHL team: Quebec Nordiques, 1979-1995
Current team: Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)

Like Winnipeg, Quebec City has been waiting for the NHL to return since their club was ripped from their hands in the mid-90s. The Nordiques fell victim to the same issues that plagued other small-market cities at the time: no local owner, an aging arena and a government unwilling to subsidize the team. The salary cap and reduced player salaries have allowed small cities like Edmonton to survive; it's entirely possible Quebec can accomplish the same thing now. The city is currently in a battle to build a new arena to house an NHL tenant, which will most likely be the deciding factor in the NHL returning.

2. Hartford

NHL team: Hartford Whalers, 1979-1997
Current team: Connecticut Whale (AHL)

Another victim of the NHL model of the 1990s, Hartford lost the Whalers for essentially the same reasons as Quebec and Winnipeg. However, an owner that was unwilling to commit to the area didn't help. When Peter Karmanos bought the club in 1994 he vowed to keep them in Hartford for four years, but after waning fan and corporate support the team moved to Carolina in 1997.

The city of Hartford at just over 100,000 people would easily be the smallest NHL city, but a large metropolitan area of 1 million would keep it from being the smallest market. Like Quebec, Hartford has still not replaced its aging XL Center, but is currently discussing building a modern arena. Hartford and Quebec aren't the biggest markets (nor do they have capable arenas), but they should be given first dibs since the NHL jobbed them out of their teams back in the 90s. 

3. Hamilton

NHL team: none
Current team: Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL)

Canadian business mogul Jim Balsillie initially tried to move the Phoenix Coyotes here, but he circumvented NHL rules, which landed him in court and out of luck. He tried the same two years earlier with the Nashville Predators, again to no avail. Initially there was some skepticism about whether Southern Ontario could support both the Maple Leafs and a squad in Hamilton, but it seems to have subsided over the years. Hamilton already has a 17,000-seat NHL-ready arena; a team just needs to become available. 

4. Milwaukee

NHL team: none
Current team: Milwaukee Admirals (AHL)

It still baffles me that Milwaukee has never been in consideration for an NHL franchise. Hockey is extremely popular in Wisconsin with both the AHL club and the University of Wisconsin men's team. The Bradley Center (home of the Milwaukee Bucks and Admirals) was opened with an exhibition game between the Oilers and Blackhawks back in 1988. The NHL may want a slightly newer building, but Milwaukee is more than capable of hosting an NHL team. 

5. Kansas City

NHL team: Kansas City Scouts, 1974-1976
Current team: Missouri Mavericks (CHL)

Kansas City is another former NHL town. It lost the Kansas City Scouts (now the New Jersey Devils) after two short seasons. The city has recently made inquiries about returning the NHL to the city and has built the Sprint Center to replace Kemper Arena. It would put a team out West instead of another squad on the East Coast, but the big question is whether the state of Missouri can support both the St. Louis Blues and a team in Kansas City. 

6. Portland

NHL team: none
Current team: Portland Winterhawks (WHL)

A Northwest team that could serve as a nearby foe for Vancouver, Portland has also been mulling exploration into the NHL waters. Portland has a fairly large metropolitan area and would get little competition in the state of Oregon, as the Portland Trail Blazers (NBA) and Portland Timbers (MLS) would be the only other pro teams in the state. The Rose Garden has hosted the Winterhawks on occasion and is relatively new (1995), so a new arena might not be necessary for landing a franchise.

7. Seattle

NHL team: none
Current team: Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)

Seattle has been itching to add a third major team since they lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City and are reportedly interested in the NHL. Seattle would give Vancouver, which has long bickered that it has no close rivalries, a club right across the border to play. However, the same issues that plague Hartford and Quebec City exist in Seattle as well with no viable modern arena to play in. Portland is a smaller town, but it has an NHL-ready building, so it gets the nod over its Pacific Northwest counterpart. 

8. Houston

NHL team: none
Current team: Houston Aeros (AHL)

If the NHL is worried about TV market size, then Houston is the place to go. Houston is the nation's fourth-largest city with a metro area just under six million (comparable to Atlanta's). The city is already home to a successful AHL franchise that has IHL and AHL championships and finished eighth in attendance during the regular season. The Toyota Center is a modern arena that opened just eight years ago and could easily house an NHL squad. Dallas has proven hockey can work in the Lone Star State and a nearby squad could produce a close rival for the Stars.

9. Las Vegas

NHL team: none
Current team: Las Vegas Wranglers (ECHL)

Las Vegas does not currently have a major professional sports franchise and is one of the largest cities in the country to hold such a distinction. Sin City's reputation for gambling and general mischief has undoubtedly scared away potential prospects, but both the NBA and NHL have shown willingness to test the market. The NHL will again hold its awards show in Las Vegas this year and the NBA held its 2007 All-Star weekend there. The New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings also played a game outside Caesars Palace back in 1991, so there is definitely some interest. Like many cities, though, the lack of an NHL-suitable arena is a major issue.

10. Indianapolis

NHL team: none
Current team: Indiana Ice (USHL)

Another Midwestern town that lacks an NHL franchise, Indianapolis is one of the nation's fastest growing cities with a population nearing 850,000. If the franchise in Columbus can't hang on in the upcoming years, a short move to Indianapolis might be favorable.

Honorable mentions

Saskatoon: Saskatoon is the largest city in the province of Saskatchewan and has tried to lure the NHL before, but it has a small metro area (265,000) and the province itself is just over one million people. It would be a tough sell.

San Francisco: A large area with a good sports history, but the San Jose Sharks might suffer from a second Bay Area team.

San Antonio: The area houses the NBA's Spurs and an AHL franchise, but one would assume Houston would get the first shot at a second Texan team.

Oklahoma City: The city has had early success with its first major pro team (the Thunder), but they need more time to prove they can be a loyal fan base.

New Orleans: One of the larger Southern cities that may appeal to the NHL after a failed attempt in Atlanta.

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