In the National Hockey League (NHL), franchises sometimes just don’t fit into their location. Like a puzzle piece that found its way into the wrong box, the alignment is a little off. While some teams just have a dwindling fan base or another attraction is more popular, the NHL has has moved or removed teams from the league completely.
Don’t Unpack Your Bags Yet
In 1997, the NHL was looking to expand into newer markets. Eventually, Nashville was awarded the honor, and the Predators were formed for that following season. Before the stage was set in Nashville, Norfolk, Virginia made a bid. That team would have been the Hampton Road Rhinos, pushed forth by George Shinn. Unfortunately, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shot the attempt down, citing the small television market and a lack of political unity. There was still a shot to bring a NHL team to Norfolk when the Hartford Whalers were looking to move and were impressed by the bid from Norfolk, even going as far to state that if Norfolk failed to gain a team with the expansion bid, the Whalers would consider moving there. In the end, in the following season, Hartford decided to relocate to Raleigh, North Carolina to become the Hurricanes.
A long history of hockey doesn’t make it easier to score a NHL franchise. Seattle has long been considered and rumored to get a NHL team. In 1974, Seattle was granted a conditional franchise. The team never made it to the ice, as the WHL (Western Hockey League), which had a Seattle-based team, folded. The WHL was a borderline major league, but due to instability, they were unable to compete. A second attempt was made in 1990. Seattle had an arena, and everything looked like it was going to finally happen. But, the arena’s tenant, the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA (National Basketball Association), didn’t want to share revenues. Due to failing to pay the 50 Million dollar fee the NHL demanded for expanding, the bid was rejected, and Seattle would once again miss out on a franchise. It’s also been rumored that some teams would relocate to Seattle. It’s happened a few times over the last 15 years as talks of shuffling some franchise locations come and go, but those rumors are sent to the boards as, yet again, Seattle is left out in the rain.
It’s not just the US that has had problems securing a new franchise. Hamilton, Ontario has made a few attempts. Jim Balsillie, then-CEO of Blackberry, attempted three times to relocate a team to Hamilton. He attempted to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, and the deal was all but finished. Failing to get the support to build the new arena that would be needed to house the relocated Penguins, Balsillie retracted the bid and would try again the following year. This time, an agreement was reached to purchase the still-young Nashville Predators. Even rallying locals to show a strong fan base is in the area couldn’t get a team to move, and the bud was ultimately terminated by the owner of the Predators, Craig Leipold, at the final hour. The team was sold to a group of 10 investors who agreed to keep the team in Nashville. Then, the Phoenix Coyotes started to howl, as they were losing money. Basillie made a public offer for the team, but the NHL fought against the bankruptcy case that the then-Coyotes Jerry Moyes owner brought forth. With the league helping fund the Coyotes, a judge ruled that the NHL, through its financial support, had the right to control the team. Balsillie launched into a public outcry against the NHL after being rejected a third time to bring another franchise back to the game’s Canadian roots. Balsillie’s bid was rejected by a judge who ruled that his offer did not meet the regulations that the NHL had set to relocate a team.
First Ticket Outta Here
The St. Louis Blues almost moved to Saskatoon, a hockey-hungry market. The Blues were costing then-owner Ralston Purina almost 2 million dollars a year. Purina, at the time, lost interest in the franchise and began not caring about the team, even going as far as to not sending a representative to the 1983 NHL draft. After stopping any money-flow into the team, Purina was eager to sell them. He found a potential buyer, and it looked like the Blues would be on the move. But, the NHL was unwilling to lose such a large market, and they halted the relocation. Eventually, a new owner, Harry Ornest, was found, and he decided to keep the team in St. Louis.
Winnipeg joined the NHL in 1979 as part of the WHA-NHL merger along with 3 other teams. After a rocky start, the Jets were soaring, as they were able to draft and develop players easily. They were consistently making the playoffs and looked like they would be a forefront on the NHL team map. However, with the NHL’s expansion into the US and the rising costs of operating and salaries, the Jets were running low on fuel. Despite having a fan base that did not want to lose the team, new payment rules in the NHL doomed the franchise. With a new rule stating that all players had to be paid in US dollars, the weakening Canadian dollar made it difficult for the small-market Canadian teams to stay on the ice. The Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche, and the Jets were almost grounded. With an aging building and an unsuccessful attempt to find a new local buyer, the team landed in Phoenix to form the Coyotes. In 2011, the sturggling Atlanta Thrashers needed to move, and the rabid Winnipeg fans leapt at the opportunity. Once season tickets were available to the public, they sold out in 17 minutes.
Sometimes, one team has a crazy idea and is able to talk another team into it. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers agreed to swap cities; well, almost. The Leafs were having a terrible stretch and were losing money and fans, while the Oilers were riding high with the hope of a young prospect and rising stars. After the Oilers entered the league in 1980, the falling Leafs decided to take a very unique approach. Why not move the two teams to new cities? The arena that the Leafs played in was old and busted, and the Oilers had a new shiny arena that had more seats and newer amenities. The Leafs owner, Harold Ballard, managed to convince the Oilers owner, Peter Pocklington, that this would be the best course and would turn out great for both parties. At the final hour, Pocklington decided that the idea was too crazy, and this blockbuster deal wasn’t going to happen.
While not every city or town is right for hockey, there always seems to be the hope that one day, the sport will come to your town. Franchises will always come and go, and the landscape of the league can hit sudden peaks and valleys, whether that’s by shifting the divisions or just picking up the nets and moving them to a new arena. The NHL has had many teams, for one reason or another, move away from their home and venture out into the world in search of new ice.
Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” writer for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.