Potential Destinations If the Coyotes Move

Potential Destinations If the Coyotes Move

If the Arizona Coyotes relocate, where could they go?

The never-ending saga over the Arizona Coyotes’ future took an interesting turn last week. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested the club could move if the Arizona state legislature failed to authorize $225 million in public funds to construct a new arena in (or near) downtown Phoenix.

Since 2003, the Coyotes have played in Glendale, about nine miles from downtown Phoenix. Over the last seven years, Issues over the club’s ownership and the arena lease with the city of Glendale have at various times raised questions over their future in Arizona.

Bettman walked back his previous statement, claiming the league isn’t giving up on Arizona as a hockey market. However, he stressed that a new arena closer to downtown Phoenix remains crucial to the franchise’s long-term future.

It remains to be seen, of course, if the state approves funding for a new arena. If not, moving the Coyotes out of Arizona could be among the league’s options. There’s been plenty of relocation chatter swirling about the franchise over the last seven years but nothing’s come of it.

Bettman and the league have stubbornly persisted in keeping the money-losing Coyotes in Arizona. Their patience, however, isn’t endless. Assuming there’s no new arena coming in the near future, they could bow to the inevitable and move the team.

Should the Coyotes move, Quebec City seems the obvious destination. It lost out on an expansion bid last year to Las Vegas and has a brand-new 18,259-seat venue (Centre Videotron) that’s perfect for an NHL franchise. Media giant Quebecor owns the new arena and could be keen to acquire a franchise.

The NHL has a history In Quebec City, as it was home to the Quebec Nordiques from 1979 to 1995 before that franchise was sold and moved to Colorado. It’s a great hockey town and returning there would would rekindle a once-intense rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens.

The downside, however, is market size. While the Quebec City metropolitan area grew in the two decades since the Nords’ departure, it would still be among the league’s smallest (over 800,000).

The province of Quebec is among the highest-taxed in Canada, which could be a downside for some players. It would also create a significant imbalance in the league’s current makeup, putting 17 franchises in the Eastern Conference and leaving 14 in the Western Conference.

Kansas City would be a much shorter move to a much-larger market (over 2.4 million). Like Quebec City, it has an NHL-ready arena (the 17,544-seat Sprint Center). K.C. had a short-lived NHL franchise (the Scouts) back in the mid-1970s. Moving there would keep the Coyotes in the Western Conference and could create a natural hockey rivalry with the St. Louis Blues.

However, no one’s stepped forward and indicated a willingness to put an NHL franchise in Kansas City. A potential owner would have to split arena revenue with the owners of the Sprint Center, Anschutz Entertainment Group.

During last year’s expansion bidding, there was talk of a couple of potential ownership groups interested in bringing a franchise to Seattle, Washington. It’s a market with a hockey history.

Early in the 20th century, the Metropolitans (1917 Stanley Cup champions) of the old Pacific Coach Hockey League called Seattle home. The Western Hockey League’s Thunderbirds have been in that city since 1977.  

Seattle has a huge market (over 4.4 million) and is close to Vancouver, BC, creating a potential natural rivalry with the Canucks. Moving there would also ensure the Coyotes remain in the Western Conference.

The biggest stumbling block, however, is the lack of a suitable venue to host an NHL franchise. A new arena is supposed to be constructed in the near future, but with emphasis on attracting a professional basketball franchise. Given the NHL’s current unhappy experience with the New York Islanders in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, it could balk at being second fiddle in a new Seattle venue. 

During the league’s great expansion in the 1990s, Portland, Oregon was sometimes brought up by the media as a possible destination for an NHL franchise. During the early years of the last decade, when a low Canadian dollar threatened the futures of the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, Portland was whispered as a potential relocation option for one of those franchises. 

Portland has an NHL-ready arena in the 18, 280-seat Moda Center. Like Seattle, it also hosts a WHL franchise (the Winterhawks). As with Kansas City and Seattle, it’s a big market (over 3.1 million) and moving the Coyotes there would keep them in the Western Conference.

But as with Kansas City, no one’s indicated any serious interest in bringing an NHL team to Portland. No bid was received during last year’s expansion process. 

What about returning to Hartford, Connecticut? That city housed an NHL franchise (Whalers) from 1979 to its relocation to Carolina in 1997. Hartford has a bigger market than Quebec City (over 1.4 million). The city and state are obviously keen to bring back the NHL, having recently asked the New York Islanders’ ownership to consider moving their franchise to the XL Center in downtown Hartford. There’s talk of doing millions in renovations to make the arena NHL-ready.

As with Kansas City and Portland, no potential owners have expressed interest in bringing a franchise back to Hartford. The Isles ownership isn’t expected to seriously consider relocating out of New York. Like Quebec City, moving the Coyotes there would create an imbalance among the conferences.

Thoughts on NHL Expansion

The National Hockey League recently confirmed receiving two applications for expansion franchises. One was from businessman “Bill Foley for a franchise in Las Vegas, Nevada, and one from Quebecor for a franchise in Quebec City.”

Bids were expected from three groups in Seattle, Washington and the Greater Toronto Area, but none were submitted before the deadline on July 20, 2015. That was noted in the league’s press release, suggesting those groups lacked confidence in their efforts to secure an arena and their ownership capability.

Quebec City is one step closer to resurrecting the Nordiques.

Quebec City is one step closer to resurrecting the Nordiques.

That line raised eyebrows among some pundits, who suggested the league was sending a shot across the bow of the aspiring owners in those cities. There’s some speculation the NHL brain trust is upset that Seattle couldn’t submit a bid, as it screws up the league’s hopes of adding two Western Conference franchises, leaving Quebec City open for a relocated team.

Whatever the feelings at NHL headquarters, they made it clear they will focus on the bids from Foley and Quebecor. That doesn’t mean Seattle and the GTA won’t get NHL franchises at some point. Once their arena issues are resolved, they could submit bids if the league still seeks destinations for expansion or franchise relocation.

For the time being, the league will determine if the bids from Foley and Quebecor are strong enough to move on to Phase 2 of the application process, which is expected to be determined by August 4.

There was some speculation bids could come from Portland, Oregon and Kansas City, Missouri.

Since the late-1990s, Portland often popped up in media speculation as a location for an NHL franchise. Those rumors usually center upon billionaire Paul Allen, who owns the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and their arena, the Moda Center. While Portland seems a viable spot for an NHL team, Allen has never seemed very interested in owning one.

Kansas City has had an NHL-ready arena for several years now, but there’s no ownership group in that region willing to pony up the $500 million expansion fee.

The bidders from Las Vegas and Quebec City have two key factors in their favor. They apparently can afford the expensive expansion fees, and have venues ready to house NHL franchises in time for the league’s centennial season in 2017-18.

Expansion to Las Vegas appears a certainty. The NHL wants to expand its brand in the Western United States. Vegas lacks a big-league sports franchise, giving the NHL an opportunity to have that market to themselves.

Quebec City is a natural choice, and an opportunity to bring the NHL back to a city it abandoned for Denver, Colorado 20 years ago. Moving there expands the number of NHL markets in Canada to eight, and resurrects a passionate rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens.

Those markets aren’t without potential issues. Flagging attendance for southern-US franchises in Glendale, Arizona; Raleigh, North Carolina and Sunrise, Florida will give rise to skepticism over the sensibility of putting another NHL franchise in America’s Sun Belt. There’s also concerns over the transient nature of a portion of Vegas’ population.

Quebec City’s metro population of over 765,000 (as of 2011) will make it the league’s second-smallest market. Other concerns include language, high taxes and the declining value of the Canadian dollar.

Assuming both cities receive NHL franchises, it will maintain an imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conference. Quebec City will become the league’s 17th Eastern franchise, while Las Vegas will be its 15thWestern club.

If the NHL opts to hold the expansion line at 32 teams, it could mean moving one of its current Eastern franchises into the Western Conference. Having already shifted Columbus and Detroit into the Eastern Conference during a divisional realignment two years ago, it won’t sit well with the owners of either club if their team is shifted back to the Western Conference.

If the Carolina Hurricanes or Florida Panthers continue struggling in their current markets, one of them could be moved to Seattle once that city finally constructs a new arena.

Should the NHL expand by two teams by 2017, there’s a belief among some NHL fans that expansion fees will provide an immediate boost to the salary cap. However, expansion fees aren’t considered hockey-related revenues (HRR), meaning that the combined $1 billion will be divided among the established 30 NHL owners. Any impact from the addition of those two teams upon HRR and the salary cap won’t be felt until after their inaugural seasons.

Critics (most of whom tend to be in so-called “traditional NHL markets”) who feel the league has become watered-down because of expansion surely won’t like this. Most of their sniping will be aimed at Las Vegas, as the traditionalists will be thrilled to see the Nordiques resurrected in Quebec City.

Regardless of which city eventually gets a franchise, or the potential impact upon the conferences, league revenue and quality of play, it’s a certainty the NHL ranks will swell by two teams before the end of this decade.