It is that most loathsome of months for the hockey follower, that time when any mere trickle of hockey news, or anything purporting to be hockey news, has the opportunity to gain traction and get regurgitated as fact, from fans and media outlets desperate for a fix and/or clicks. And that's probably something Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province knew when he proclaimed an NHL expansion to Las Vegas a "done deal", and his column shot around North America almost instantly.
Never mind that, in the same sentence Gallagher uses the term "done deal", he also noted that there's been no determination of an owner yet. But hey, outside of not having the necessary ownership with hundreds of millions of dollars in required liquidity available to pay expansion fees and operate a major-league sports franchise, this Vegas NHL team is ready to go! Also, Gallagher gradually walks back his "done deal" to "all but assured", "certainly seems to make a lot of sense", and "(t)hey'd be nuts to not be thinking about it" in following paragraphs. Iron-clad, mark it down, book it, done.
Not to be outdone or out-pageviewed, Howard Bloom, proprietor of the $10-per-month subscription press release recycler you'd never heard of before last night known as "Howard Bloom's Sports Business News", decided to up the ante:
NHL expansion – four teams added by 2017, Quebec City, Toronto, Seattle, and Las Vegas $1.4b in expansion feesFour expansion teams! Sure, why not? Every expansion or relocation rumor of the past five years, conveniently packaged in 140 characters or less? You betcha! And just for kicks, let's go Full Rovell and pull a dollar amount clear out of thin air. $1.4 billion sounds believable enough!
— Howard Bloom (@SportsBizNews) August 27, 2014
No follow-ups on this tweet came from Howard Bloom. He never wrote an article expanding on his claims. He never linked to any pieces suggesting his numbers or timeline have merit. He never even bothered tossing out the "sources say" that Tony Gallagher used to give his Vegas story a faint tinge of credibility.
Didn't matter. Howard's claim got his name on Sports Illustrated, Puck Daddy, Deadspin, and countless other sites by this morning. This is journalism yellower than the Predators' home jerseys.
Look, expansion is probably coming to the NHL sometime soon. That seemed obvious once realignment created an imbalance between the conferences that creates more whining from the eastern markets than we've already grown used to. The endgame here appears to be four divisions of eight teams each. And it would be nice to have those shiny new teams and their shiny new hundreds of millions of dollars ready to go in 2017, just in time for the NHL's 100th season and 100th anniversary. (Thanks, season-long lockout!) But to claim expansion to any of the markets now getting attention is anywhere near a done deal is pretty absurd. Let's take a look around, shall we?
Las Vegas: Hey, they're building a real arena, with a real NHL capacity of 17,500! They're also in the one place in the U.S. and Canada where you can drop nine figures on an arena and say "Hey, something will fill this and draw spectators, probably." Of course, that also means this sparkling new venue doesn't need an NHL or NBA team as an anchor tenant. On a smaller scale, the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers just got booted from the Orleans Arena, because the casino believes it can fill the dates with more profitable events. The Wranglers are "sitting out" this season, because their plan to play in a giant tent on top of a parking garage didn't work out, somehow.
Also, they don't have an owner. They don't have a prospective owner. They don't have anyone rumored by sources as being potentially interested in being a prospective owner. The arena's being built by AEG, who owns the Kings, so they can't own a second team. What about Jerry Bruckheimer? He was hot-and-heavy to put a team in Vegas, wasn't he? He sure was! Seven years ago. Expansion to Vegas was all but a done deal then, too.
Seattle: Oh, we've been down this road before. Seattle has an arena that seats 11,000 for hockey, and does so in possibly the worst fashion involving a facility with a roof. They are not getting a new arena unless the Supersonics come back. They are not getting the Supersonics back any time soon, from the looks of things. Unless Perpetual Manic Episode Steve Ballmer decides to get frisky with another couple billion, Seattle is currently not a feasible NHL market.
Toronto-ish: Markham! Where NHL dreams thrive, until everybody sobers up, realizes what a horrible idea it is to gamble mountains of taxpayer money on maybe getting a hockey team, and votes down the proposal unanimously. Then the dreams die forever.
How about Hamilton, Toronto's own Joliet? The Predators almost kinda moved there that one time! Copps Coliseum holds 17,300 for hockey. It also was built in the eighties, which means, for NHL purposes, it may as well be a flaming hole in the earth. And the only person interested in and capable of bringing the NHL to Hamilton, Jim Balsillie, made all of his money from Blackberry. He has spent the past five years losing his money from Blackberry. The closest Hamiltonians will get to a hometown NHL team will be if they can track down both seasons of "Power Play" on VHS on Kijiji.
Well, I'm sure Andrew Lopez will break ground on his new 30,000-seat arena in Toronto with that billion dollars in backing he totally, definitely has any day now. And then he can start negotiating on exactly how many hundreds of millions of dollars he'll have to pay the Leafs and Sabres in compensation for setting up shop in their established territory.
Quebec City: Here's one that could, and should, happen. The NHL-caliber arena is already being built, for real! You can look at it right this minute! The potential owner is a Canadian media kingpin who's already friendly with the league, courtesy of a broadcast rights deal. And while nobody involved on any side is so much as whispering "Nordiques", the government sure as hell isn't dropping $400 million on a new rink for a junior team that charges fifteen bucks to sit anywhere you like. If it turns out that they are (and they might; QC is very small and very French, two big strikes against it as the NHL seeks to maximize TV revenue), everyone who made this new arena happen will be catching the first trebuchet out of town.
All right, so maybe Howard and Tony's Surefire Four aren't the inevitable expansion homes they've been portrayed as over the past 24 hours. But they're hardly the only cities bandied about as potential landing spots for future NHL teams, so let's review some of the other main contenders:
Kansas City: The market that is to the NHL what Los Angeles is to the NFL, which tells you plenty about where one league ranks relative to the other. Hey, the Predators almost moved here, too! And so did the Penguins, in a move that absolutely wasn't an idle threat designed to extort millions from the government for a new arena in Pittsburgh! Yes, Kansas City has the first-rate arena everyone craves with Sprint Center. It also has the Power and Light District, which is what Glendale tries to be, but Kansas City's version has the distinct advantage of not being in Glendale. But AEG (hey, the Kings' owners again!) is reportedly making a substantial profit on the property without having any sports team as an anchor tenant, so it really doesn't have the motivation to change the way it's doing business so someone can lay down ice 45 to 50 times a year.
Houston: Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander led Houston's NHL expansion bid in the '90s. He did this with the goal of Houston not getting an NHL team, because he didn't want any competition in town on his watch. Les Alexander still owns the Rockets, and kicked out the successful, stable AHL Aeros last season because he controls the arena, and wanted to fill it with non-hockey events. (Bit of a theme developing, that one.) You are not getting hockey in Houston as long as that jackhole's running the show.
Milwaukee: The Bradley Center has the same problem as Copps Coliseum - built three decades ago (as a hockey-first venue, no less), now considered a relic unworthy of a new major sports franchise. Milwaukee also probably isn't big enough to adequately support the Bucks and the NHL. Now, granted, the Bucks' new owners are free to leave in a few years if they can't secure a deal for a new arena. But if the Bucks leave, they'll probably go to Seattle, which means the new arena gets built in Seattle, which means the NHL now has a workable venue to place a team in Seattle instead of a fallback location like, say, Milwaukee. So, keep on supporting the Admirals. They're a good organization.
Milwaukee probably could have worked 25 years ago, when Lloyd Pettit wanted to bring in an expansion team. But that proposal got killed single-handedly by Bill Wirtz, who claimed Milwaukee was in the Blackhawks' territory, because when it came to hockey, there was nothing Bill couldn't solve with pettiness and a short-sighted approach.
Portland: This isn't soccer.
Saskatoon: Sorry, the Blues called dibs.
Hartford: Here, sit down for a second.
Now, this is going to be hard for both of us, because you liked the Whalers. Heck, I liked the Whalers, too. Bought a hat in high school and everything! But the Whalers spent their eighteen seasons in the NHL playing mostly-poor hockey for revolving-door ownership in front of mostly-small crowds in an ill-conceived arena anchoring a shopping mall. The Hartford Whalers were the Phoenix Coyotes with better logos and a catchy goal song. And Hartford is less-desirable as a major-league market than it was when Pete Karmanos high-tailed it to Carolina back in 1997. They still have the mall rink. It's okay. It's time to let go. Now, let's go get some ice cream.
So, how many of those candidates sound like a "done deal" to you? Go on, pick any four for guaranteed hockey business success. Let's touch base on it again in 2017. Or, you know, next week, because we'll still have loads of empty column inches to fill before training camps open.
The Coyotes' escape clause kicks in at the end of the 2017-18 season, by the way.