At many times throughout his career, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman denied allegations that the NHL had plans to expand or relocate franchises “in the near future.”
In the past decade, however, three teams were added to the league, and now with Winnipeg’s second chance at an NHL market, a fourth city, Quebec, continues to hope for the return of a franchise.
Minnesota and Columbus acquired teams in 2000, although many speculations have Columbus as a non-traditional hockey market and a potential candidate for re-location. Meanwhile, the Wild have showed they have learned from previous mistakes and have good support (financial and fanatical) to thrive on as a viable market.
Winnipeg gets a second opportunity and looks to have everything in place to start the 2011-12 season with a bang. Quebec City stands not too far behind, possibly trying to learn from the Peg’s success while other markets (such as Hamilton and Kansas City) look for ways to eventually get in on the action.
Let’s take a look at the past (Minnesota), present (Winnipeg) and future (Quebec City) developments of the league and their journey back to the NHL.
Minnesota’s strategy to regain an NHL team was solid from the start.
Following the departure of the North Stars after the 1993 season (a relocation to Dallas), the state was without an NHL team for seven seasons. Minnesota however reacted quickly to the move; St. Paul’s mayor Norm Coleman began a campaign to either recruit an existing team to relocate or acquire an expansion franchise.
The concrete plans for a new arena and the failed yet ambitious efforts to obtain the Jets (who went straight to Phoenix in 1996) and, two years later, the Hartford Whalers (who moved to Raleigh and became the Hurricanes), convinced the NHL the ‘North Star state’ deserved a team.
On June 25, 1997, the NHL announced that Minnesota had been awarded an expansion franchise to start playing in the 2000-01 season.
The construction of the Xcel Energy Center started in June 1998, and the puck was dropped on Oct. 11, 2000. After opening the doors of the arena, the Wild sold out every game until the streak recently ended on Oct. 16, 2010 but the franchise still records great attendance numbers.
The Wild has tough players. Brent Burns, a 6-foot-5, 219-pound defenseman, led the defense corps last season with 46 points. He’s gritty and intimidating, ranking first amongst the team with 98 penalty minutes. Captain Mikko Koivu, a strong center from Turko, Finland, tallied 62 points this past season. He led the team to 12th place in the Western conference; they fell 11 points short of a playoff spot.
With the team’s average height of 6-foot-1, the Wild could be a brick wall to many opponents in upcoming seasons. In the past decade however, the Wild have made the post-season only three times, their best run was in 2003 when they went to the Conference final against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
Back in 1993, reasons to move the North Stars included poor attendance during a string of losing seasons. Let’s hope the Wild can use their assets, reward their fans for their resilient efforts to bring the team back to St. Paul and continue to be part of the NHL future.
The Winnipeg Jets had a cutthroat journey.
After the team moved to the desert in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes, hockey fans in Manitoba kept hoping the NHL franchise would come back north again.
Back in 1996, the Jets didn’t have a willing owner, they couldn’t get a new arena built and the Canadian dollar was ailing. Winnipeg worked hard and after building the arena, the patient group of True North Sports & Entertainment announced it had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers for $170 million and was relocating the team back to the capital of Manitoba. The 15 years of agony Winnipeggers endured after the Jets left had finally come to an end.
With some sharp players coming from Atlanta, Winnipeg has a promising future ahead.
Andrew Ladd, captain of the Thrashers, visited the Manitoban capital and met with management to discuss their vision for the future. Ladd, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, with Carolina in 2006 and Chicago in 2010, recorded 59 points last season and could become a key member of the Winnipeg franchise. Evander Kane, a young Canadian power forward, tallied 19 goals and 43 points in Atlanta and is looking to be a leader on the team.
New Winnipeg GM, Kevin Cheveldayoff, who worked his way up in the Chicago organization, is planning for the new Canadian franchise to become “a contender for many years to come.” The team still doesn’t have a name, but should find its identity before the June 21st NHL board of governor’s meeting where the sale will be formally approved.
Winnipeg becomes the seventh team in Canada and many believe the NHL might be inclined to put more teams up north if it weren’t for the impact of the new 10-year TV deal that was recently reached. The NHL and the NBC Sports Group came to an agreement on a record television deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.
Quebec lost the Nordiques more than 15 years ago and now the investors trying to get a team back in the Old Capital are swarmed with paperwork.
Back in 1995, the financial difficulties were exacerbated by a weak Canadian dollar and at the time, Quebec City was the smallest market in the NHL. The franchise was therefore relocated to Denver and renamed the Colorado Avalanche.
Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume continues to plan the financing of a new arena in the city. An upgraded venue is a key component to getting an NHL franchise to return to the province. Gary Bettman confirmed that any hopes for the Nordiques’ return rests in the completion of the project.
Meanwhile, empty arenas and ownership issues in southern markets have become an embarrassment to the league and recent speculation has Florida as a market soon to fail. A Montreal newspaper reported that even though the Panthers are in a rebuilding process, the financial issues could make them an interesting candidate for a re-location to Quebec.
The city of Glendale invested $25 million to mop up a part of the deficit of the Coyotes, who could eventually become another potential candidate along with the Blue Jackets.
Former Nordiques elite players include Peter Stastny, Guy Lafleur and Joe Sakic. Stastny spent close to 10 seasons with the Nordiques, tallying an impressive 1,048 points. Lafleur played his last two seasons in Quebec where he amassed 62 of his 1,353 career points, while contributing to the intense Montreal-Quebec rivalry as a member of both clubs. Sakic was a Nordique for seven seasons until they moved to Colorado, where he played another 13 campaigns before retiring. He finished his 20-year career with 1,641 points and as an ultimate favorite in the Old Capital.
Any new player moving to Quebec would be delighted to receive such praise.
The future of hockey in Quebec looks promising. The city is willing to adapt to any franchise coming to town, but will need to construct the new 18,000-seat building. With the support of avid hockey fans in the region, a team would prosper. Nordiques fans can only keep their fingers crossed.
The respective journeys of these three teams suggest the achievement of the past, the triumph of the present and the potential of the future in the league. While relocating weaker teams is still an uneasy prospect for Bettman, Minnesota has shown that success is possible.
Winnipeg also proved it is more than prepared to pay NHL prices; the quick sale of 13,000 season tickets drove this point home.
Some believe Quebec City could be celebrating the return of a professional hockey team had the construction of a NHL-sized arena started already, but their constant efforts may convince the commissioner la belle province is once again ready for their Nordiques.