Now that the dust has somewhat settled following the sale of the Carolina Hurricanes and the likelihood of a 32nd NHL franchise in Seattle, let’s assess the ramifications of the past few days on the hockey world, and a few cities in particular.
First, the people in Raleigh and the surrounding region are heaving a huge sigh of relief. Owner Peter Karmanos has been intent on selling the Hurricanes for a while, but he wanted to find a minority owner so he could remain in control of the team. But it became evident no one was willing to invest in a franchise that didn’t make much (if any) money, without a controlling interest.
And while no one will admit it publicly, Karmanos’ partners on the NHL board were growing a bit impatient over money owed to the league. The timing of the Thomas Dundon purchase was perfect for all involved and Karmanos was able to maintain a percentage of the team, though he was forced to relinquish control.
In Seattle, the five-day frenzy that began with city council approving the US$600 million renovation of KeyArena and ended with the NHL inviting David Bonderman and his partners to apply for an expansion team, speaks to the enthusiasm the league has for the Pacific Northwest. There is something symbiotic about NHL-in-Seattle talks exactly 100 years after the Metropolitans, based out of the city, won the Stanley Cup.
This time, there will be a $650 million expansion price tag, which is $150 million more than Bill Foley paid for his Vegas team. One would have to assume that increase, in part, is a testament to the Golden Knights’ great start this season.
Because of Vegas’ success and the developments around Seattle last week, many are assuming the city will simply get a team and begin play in the fall of 2020.
But it’s not that simple.
We know the invitation has been extended to apply for a team, but when will that be sent in and will it happen soon? Will it occur before or after the local group launches a season ticket campaign, like they did in Las Vegas? And when will that campaign happen? I’m told it has yet to be decided if the application will come to the league before or after the season ticket campaign. When asked for a timeline, one league source was reluctant to give one. But when asked if 18 months is a realistic timeline they said: “Not sure it should take that long…one way or the other.”
Many of us have been huge advocates for Seattle as an NHL city and it has a very strong history of the game. Murray Costello, Vince Abbey and Guyle Fielder are all historical hockey legends in the city, while the Metropolitans and the Totems are part of the Emerald City’s hockey lore. Seattle’s demographics, whether it be income or tech savvy people, fit perfectly with what the NHL stands for, and will be for years to come.
Seattle will work.
But will it happen in 2020-21 when the renovations are scheduled to be completed? Those, of course, would need to be done on time, but the NHL would also need to avoid another lockout.
Either way, to me, Seattle is a lock. In the past week we have witnessed the league open its arms to the potential new owner, the city, and the hockey fans of Washington state’s largest city. Only those groups can change the course of hockey history now and if it ends up that Seattle doesn’t get a team they have no one to blame but themselves.
That brings us to Houston and Quebec City. Both are on the sidelines for now, which is exactly where Gary Bettman wants, and in fact, needs them. Both cities have arenas that are ready to host games in state-of-the-art facilities that would be great for hockey, and both have owners with deep pockets.
As discussed on these pages before Tilman Fertita, the owner the the NBA’s Houston Rockets, wants a team. He has met with the NHL and has been asking more questions than he’s answering. He is doing his due diligence on the NHL, as they are doing on him. And to be perfectly honest, with the business front office of an NBA team (ticketing, marketing, sponsorship) they are ready to go at any point.
Houston has become the perfect city and arena for Bettman to move his most troubled team — the oasis in the desert for a troubled NHL franchise that won’t ever be viable in its present market. Your guess is as good as mine as to who that will be, though. Is it a team that begins with an “A” or a “C” or an “F”? We won’t know until the commissioner wants us to know.
Because you see Bettman, who I worked almost five years for and someone who is revered by billionaires, has a plan. He has done an amazing job of manipulating the hockey world for more than two decades and he’s not going to stop until every franchise is in the perfect market at the perfect time. He’s someone who almost always asks a question to which he already knows the answer. He has managed the owners brilliantly in his time as commissioner and delivered to shareholders a business that started at $400 million in revenue and will finish this year over $4 billion. The owners who employ him love him, trust him, and follow him.
How Bettman views Houston is how, in some manner, he views Quebec City. Many there felt Carolina was destined to be their team, but that when it was sold to Dundon it ended their NHL chances once again. There are those who question whether Quebecor can afford the $650 million US price tag for a team — that’s more than $825 million Canadian, which is almost too much to justify, particularly for relocation and being able to make the hockey club profitable. Many also believe Quebec was promised the next expansion team, but the truth is, they weren’t.
Everyone knows they have a rabid fan base and brand new, state-of-the-art arena. But alas, it made no geographical sense for the NHL to commit to Quebec City with the league already having more teams in the Eastern Conference.
Quebec City is the “new Hamilton” or the “new Winnipeg.” Only in the most dire situation will the NHL turn to the city. Expansion is out of the question, leaving relocation as Quebec’s only recourse — and even that must be considered a long shot.
For now, Carolina won’t be moved so who does that leave? Florida? Ottawa? Arizona? As of this date, the real answer is no one. Relocation is not an option until it’s the only alternative. For example, when Winnipeg landed its team through relocation they were the only option for the Thrashers.
So we wait.
We wait for Seattle to prove it’s a hockey city and we wait until the commissioner has explored every option possible, even a few we haven’t contemplated, to see NHL hockey in Houston or Quebec City.
Don’t laugh. It’s true: Gary Bettman has a plan.
He just hasn’t told us what it is yet.