What to do about the ‘Yotes: The problem dogging NHL Realignment

A few weeks ago, Kyle Busch posted his view on the seeming inevitable realignment of teams in the next couple of years. The NHL’s thought process seems to be focused on cleaning up the time zone distribution of its teams and making the TV scheduling (and the advertising that goes with it) more convenient for fans. It has to be an improvement over the current divisions, right?

I made a case in the comments section of that post for a 16-14 East-West split (below) that made exceptions to the time zone rule in order to maintain current rivalries (Detroit – Chicago) and build new ones (Nashville to the East with other relatively new franchises in Carolina and Florida).

We can agree to disagree about what the league will actually do, but there’s a much bigger issue that makes a pre-season commitment to either a 15-15 split or a 16-14 moot: What’s going to happen in Arizona? Until the ownership and facility issues are legally and financially finalized, blessing a new-look NHL map is risky.

The franchise has been in the NHL’s hands since the 2009 bankruptcy filing, and it will stay there a while longer after Matthew Hulsizer withdrew his bid last month following a year-long courtship with the City of Glendale (he appears to now be involved in the St. Louis Blues sale). The league has given Glendale a 12/31/11 deadline to come to terms with a new buyer before it moves on to relocating the team. The ethics of this extended league operation aside, how the NHL handles this realignment is contingent on the long-term standing of the Coyotes.

According to the Arizona Republic, there are still two or three more potential buyers for the franchise that could keep it in Glendale provided the biggest hurdle of them all, a Jobing.com Arena lease with the city, can also be cleared. Operating an NHL team in Arizona is, by all accounts, an operational nightmare that’s relying a great deal of subsidies. At this point, it seems like they’re just searching for non-bond solutions to protect Arizona residents and appease the Goldwater Institute.

Photo by Niki D'AndreaThe NHL is looking for a $170M selling price to cover its costs. Bidders who don’t want to pay that much are looking for cost offsets from the city, leveraging Glendale’s sunk costs in the arena to their advantage. Everyone’s trying to make a profit, and the tug of war is tearing the residents both ways – as fans who want their team to stay, and as residents who would prefer the more important, everyday workings of their local government not be compromised over a sport (no matter how great). [Photo by Niki D'Andrea]

If the league chooses to stick with its current structure and simply reshuffle the teams to start in 2012, you’re stuck painting the new picture with watercolors. There’s a real probability the team will need to move. One scenario is a deal in Seattle or Portland: the WHL has teams in both (Thunderbirds, Winterhawks respectively), and Spokane has a history of supporting its WHL franchise (Chiefs).

Both have fans supporting new MLS franchises and have existing arenas that could, at worst, host a hockey team while a new arena is built or, at best, make some improvements to be a long-term home. For realignment, though, this move to the Pacific Northwest would necessitate another divisional shift to put the franchise closer to natural rival Vancouver and the other area teams.

If the Pacific NW is not an option, the relocation scene moves east. I’d like to put Kansas City on the top of the list, but the Sprint Center has lost a bit of its shine since it was recently considered a possible destination for the once-restless Penguins. They haven’t been able to attract a buyer for an NBA team, either, so another NHL franchise in Missouri seems less likely, leaving potential rivalries with St. Louis, Chicago, and Dallas on the table.

Speaking of Dallas, Texas may have two of the most viable options in Houston and San Antonio. Both are considered cities with growth potential, already host NBA teams, and could build on a Texas fan base that started with the Stars’ move from Minnesota in 1993. The “booming city” label loses a bit of its luster, though, when you see Phoenix on the list. Not all markets, no matter the economic potential, are natural fits for the NHL.

Photo by Matt FarlandTexas has a good case, though, with an already strong hockey presence beyond Dallas. Three AHL teams call the state home, playing in Houston (2011 Western Conference Champion Aeros), San Antonio (Rampage), and Cedar Park (Texas Stars) outside of Austin. This support (and existing arena) was a strong point for Winnipeg, so could the same be said for Houston (Toyota Center: 17,900 seats) or San Antonio (AT&T Center: 13,800). This plan could also get Glendale the consolation prize of the to-be-moved AHL franchise from either city. [Photo by Matt Farland]

A move to either Kansas City or a Lone-star city would probably require another divisional shift in the Western Conference. Dallas and Phoenix both currently play in the Pacific Division; the Stars are much more likely to be placed in a more Central division in relocation, meaning the Coyotes would still be tied to California in a new format; future relocation of the franchise to the Central time zone would require a new divisional home.

After these Midwest and northwest cities, relocation options turn to the Northeast and pose a larger problem for realignment. If the NHL has stayed with a 15-15 split until then, will they be willing to go to 16 East, 14 West and two divisions in each? Or will a team recently moved to the East (Detroit or Columbus, for example), be moved back to the West to maintain equal numbers in each conference?

One thing seems sure: a preliminary plan for unbalanced conferences is a harder sell if there’s a chance a 17th team would be in the East footprint. Options include the Hamilton area since Jim Balsillie once offered over $200M to buy the Coyotes and move them to southern Ontario. Would another offer by him ever be considered given his tenuous relations with the NHL to date? Would he be able to make a similar bid now, given RIMM stock currently worth a third of its 2009 peak (and a fifth of its 2008 all-time high)?

Photo by Mathieu Belanger, ReutersQuebec City has been hungry for a team since the Avalanche left for Denver 16 years ago. Nordiques fans staged an event by traveling to a New York Islanders game last season showing Commissioner Gary Bettman a “Some will come this far to make a statement, imagine how many will show in the city for a game” spirit. While those fans focused on wooing the Islanders, specifically, the Coyotes aren’t out of that scenario. Look how quickly the Thrashers were switched into the Winnipeg scenario after the NHL committed to Arizona for one more year. If a city builds enough momentum in league offices, relocation will happen. [Photo by Mathieu Belanger, Reuters]

And, finally, if we’re talking Northeast and hockey homes, I have to at least mention Hartford, CT, longest of long shots it may be. Since the Whalers left to become the Hurricanes in North Carolina, fans of the Brass Bonanza have hoped for a new franchise, but it’s unlikely given the market saturation by the Bruins and three other NYC-area teams. Oh, well… click on the link one more time and enjoy the nostalgia.

NHL realignment may have been sparked by Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg, but the pieces are going to keep moving until the Coyotes ownership situation is resolved. Because the possibilities occupy such a wide geographic range, the franchise’s location for the next decade – be it in Glendale, Seattle, Houston, Quebec City, or somewhere else – is a vital piece of the puzzle. Your guess is as good as mine (and theirs, even).

Until it’s decided, the NHL’s conference and divisional structure will continue being little more than what-ifs scribbled on the back of cocktail napkins. The league’s enjoying as much goodwill and attention as it’s received at any point since the lockout. Well-implemented realignment can feed fan excitement through a smart combination of maintaining rivalries and the construction of new ones.

But fans are only going to buy in if they believe there will be some staying power in those new groupings. Divisions can be created overnight on a stat sheet, but fans need some time to become familiar with those rivals and develop the right mix of respect and contempt for those teams. They won’t fully invest the time and energy if they know it’ll change in another year, so I hope the NHL is patient, waits until the Spring of 2012, and gets it right.


George Prax's picture

Great blog. I honestly never tire of seeing these types of posts because it's obviously very relevant.

I won't bother talking about other teams because I think most of the ones you mentioned are viable choices, but I think I have to mention the Nordiques again. I don't think they're ready for an NHL team. For starters, the fans that went down to the Island were more there to taunt the Thrashers than the isles (for the simple reason that Long Island is a shorter bus trip than Atlanta), but look at what happened with the Thrashers... they left for Winnipeg pretty much on a few week notice. If the Coyotes go, it will be a similar situation, and there's no indication that Quebec will be ready any time in the next 3 or even four years that they'll be ready. They have no one committed to own the team, they have no arena to play the team in and aside from the rabid fans, the city and province is filled with people squawking and fighting over how to handle the whole situation... been meaning to blog about it but I don't think Quebec is ready at all and I think the NHL and Gary agree with me on this.

Personally, I would give a team to either Seattle or Houston.

evilbobsaget's picture

Great blog. But I think it's time to shed the 4 divisions notion and go with 3 -10 team divisions. Top 4 or 5 of each division goes to playoffs with the remaining 4 (or 1)team going in by a overall points "buy" . Once you get to a final 4, divide the semi-final by season ranking. This would in fact, allow for teams in the same divisions to fight for the cup. Who wouldn't love a Montreal-Toronto, New York-New York (or Jersey) or Calgary-Edmonton final ?

As far as relocation, again I will scream Houston to the rooftops. The Aeros (WHL, AHL and IHL form) have created a great hockey history here that can arguably be on the same level as the Hershey Bears. Were the only city to have had all three Howe's play together and, should we win the Stanley cup we would have the distinction of being the only city to have won a championship in all major pro hockey leagues ( The Avro cup, the Turner cup and the Calder Cup) We are the 4th largest metropolita area in the USA and home of 23 of the fortune 500 companies and we are one of the cities least affected by the current recession. Attracting players here would be an issue due to low taxes and low cost of housing. Though were the fattest city, we have the most restaurants per capita anywhere in the USA ( cause all there is to do here is eat) On paper, Houston is a great place to live. Drawbacks... it's hot as fuck in the summer and boring as shit all year round. And right now, Rockets suck, Texans suck, 'stros suck but the Dynamo is doing fine.

Patrick Storto's picture

I like the idea of giving me my own division.

I'll say Phoenix moves to Seattle, which shouldn't pose too much of a problem in terms of realignment.