As the NHL season hits its unofficial midway point at NHL All-star weekend, rather than lament this affair I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about the NHL’s future.
In just over eight months time hockey is doubling down on the desert and fittingly so in Las Vegas, Nevada. Since hockey has been so damn profitable in Arizona the NHL decided to let a new owner into their boys club. For the bargain of 500 million dollars, Mr. William P. Foley, now owns a professional hockey team and will begin the uphill journey of putting together a winning, entertaining and hopefully profitable franchise.
Vegas and expansion had been rumored hand in hand for several years. Other cities such as Seattle, Portland, Hamilton and Quebec were also in the conversation for prospective franchises. Quebec and Vegas both submitted formal expansion proposals to the NHL. For you young bucks the Nordiques previously had a WHA franchise that was absorbed into the NHL but they fucked off to Colorado in the mid 90’s just as they were getting good. It’s too bad their area was deemed unfit for an NHL franchise and the Canadian dollar turned to shit. However, with a declining Canadian currency and the need for another Western market, Vegas was always where the NHL wanted to go for expansion.
Over the past 26 years the NHL has added the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Minnesota Wild. Of those franchises only the Ducks and Lightning have won championships, while the Senators and Panthers both reached the finals once each. On the flip side, The Atlanta Thrashers eventually crashed and burned and they ended up back in Winnipeg who had been begging for a franchise since the Jets relocated to Arizona in the mid 90’s.
So what does this all mean? Expansion has actually worked and it’s been a massive success for the most part. One of the constant knocks on League Commissioner, Gary Bettman, is that all he cares about is expanding hockey to the South. To a degree this is correct since it his job is to help grow wealth for the leagues owners and this is done through expanding the league’s markets, collecting expansion fees and growing league media revenues. Through those initiatives the league has grown from $400 million dollar regional business primarily dependent on gate revenues, to an international multi billion dollar business.
Now there’s a catch. The NHL on ice product is possibly already watered down by too many teams and by 23 man rosters. Given the Vegas franchise will essentially have to make a team from the scrap heap known as an expansion draft, The Knights are assured to not be a good hockey team… at least for awhile.
As much as the NHL is saying that they are putting new rules for the expansion draft in place, these changes won’t help much. No team is going to expose one of their top 4 forwards or top 3 defenseman so it’s pretty much inevitable they will not have an NHL caliber top line. There are a few teams that will likely lose a key player but it’s more likely those teams trade their top exposes player for a low draft pick rather then lose him for nothing. This would then water down the expansion pool even further for the Knights.
Another item to note is that the NHL is essentially going to grow by 23 AHL equivalent talents who will play on the Vegas roster and spread across the rest of the league. There are certainly NHL capable goaltenders who don’t have starting jobs or are stuck in the AHL, but NHL defenseman or forwards? No chance. Hell, most teams struggle to find what they call top 2 defenseman as it stands, this is going to only get more challenging with a 31st franchise in the league.
One last thought on roster predictions is that Vegas will ultimately end up with a solid albeit unspectacular set of goaltenders, but they are going to end up with a lot of young 3rd line type players and will have to build slowly through the draft rather then building a roster of aging vets with overpriced contracts. I don’t see how a roster possibly being led by a Jared Spurgeon and Patrick Sharp will create demand and this presents a problem.
However, there is an even bigger threat since Vegas was awarded an NHL franchise. As the NFL regular season came to an end rumours were swirling that the Oakland Raiders were interested in relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada. Sure enough, in January the team had filed its relocation papers and could possibly become the first major professional team to play a game in Las Vegas.
This is bad news for the Knights. It’s inevitable that improvement through the draft is going to take several years, but in a non-traditional market as crazy as Las Vegas… oh boy. The team may have had a shot at being front page sports news in Vegas for a short period of time, but that is out the window now that a playoff caliber NFL team may move in immediately.
The NFL is religion in America and owns an entire day of the week for sports fans. The Raiders will be the marquee show in town hands down. In addition when you consider the complications that Vegas is one of America’s biggest tourist towns, the city’s workforce is constantly working shift work around the clock due to the tourist/casino industry, getting attendance is going to be a challenge.
I truly hope that hockey can succeed in Vegas, but I am very skeptical. Sports and Las Vegas do go hand in hand, especially when you consider the amount of boxing and UFC events that are held there every single year. However, there have been a multitude of minor league sports teams that couldn’t make a long term go in this market.
In the hockey realm there was recently the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL who lasted from 2003 to 2014. Prior to the Wranglers there was the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL from 1993 to 1999. Both teams respectively folded when they did not renew their arena leases and were without a venue to play. Also important to note that neither team won a championship during their tenures in Vegas.
Both franchises did modestly well but were often reliant upon cheese gimmicks such as midnight games and free mullet hat give away nights to draw the fans ins. The casinos can only buy so may seats and give away so many tickets. The big question is how much will the local residents embrace this team. Considering that there are approximately only 9 other ice hockey facilities in the state of Nevada it’s safe to say the locals are not hockey nuts.
This franchise is going to have to greatly educate the local sports base and hope they fall in love with the game of hockey. Organic curiosity in the Knights is inevitable, but is sustainable passion and interest in the team and hockey a guarantee?
Josh Kolic, and I once attended a Montreal Canadians and Arizona Coyotes game in the desert back in 2014. The Coyotes facility was beautiful and at this particular game it may have even been close to a sell out. However, that was due to probably 60% of the fans in attendance were sporting Montreal Canadians jerseys. Best part of the Arizona area was the $75,000 50/50 and 20 minute wait in a Tim Horton’s lines.
A couple of nights later after that Canadians game the Canucks were in town and drew a far smaller crowd. We both also got a chuckle that the arena was advertising for that upcoming weekend “Canada Rock Night” featuring Loverboy for the low price of $10!
I’m sure the Vegas Knights will fill their building when the Leafs and Habs come to town once a year, but do their Canadian Conference competitors have the same rabid fan base? Will geographical rivals such as the Kings, Coyotes, Sharks and Ducks have anymore appeal? Will these teams draw on a Tuesday night in December? Will traveling tourists choose to go to a hockey game instead of a UFC event, Cirque de Soleil or Blue Man Group?
At the end of the day I want hockey to grow and the on ice product to improve. Hockey in 2017 is probably better then it’s been at any point in my life time. A watered down NHL is not good and if Vegas runs into financial issues years down the road how will the league respond? Will it be forced to scramble for relocation or even worse retrench and fold up similar to what happened during the 1970’s WHA war?
These are questions that will all have answers in due time, but in the mean time the Knights will have a long road ahead that will quickly come to a head. Perhaps Las Vegas will one days be known as the land of casinos, shotgun weddings, endless buffets, and NHL hockey? I for one will watch with great interest and look forward to the upcoming expansion draft, but puck drop in October 2017 is where rubber hits the road or ice maybe more fittingly