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Expansion dreams: What could a truly global NHL look like?

Craig Morgan Avatar
July 31, 2022

Maybe it’s the postoperative drugs talking. Maybe it was my old colleague Stewart Mandel’s well conceived plan for a Big 12-Pac-12 merger that sparked the idea. Maybe I’m just bored because we’re in the NHL’s dead season, with little information circulating throughout the hockey world other than bad rumors. 

Whatever the genesis, all of this talk of super conferences in college got me thinking what a super league could look like in hockey. To be clear, the NHL is not looking to expand any time soon. Both commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have made that clear, but the NHL is always looking for ways to increase revenue and expansion fees have provided the league’s owners with big paydays in recent years. Vegas paid a $500 million expansion fee and Seattle paid $650 million.

North American pro sports are already coast-to-coast leagues so the Big Ten’s addition of UCLA and USC barely raises an eyebrow in pro circles. For the NHL to become a super league, it would have to go global. 

With that in mind, I reached out to a couple dozen hockey sources in executive and media circles to ask this question: “If the NHL could expand to any hockey-playing markets in the world (yes, world), which ones would be at the top of your list? Selfish replies welcome.”

The latter line elicited some fun responses like Istanbul (Europe’s largest city), Tokyo and New Zealand. While I would gladly hop on a plane and endure the long flight to any of those fascinating places, I don’t think that Turkish, Asian or Oceanic hockey has advanced to the point where it could support an NHL team. Per, Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s lone entrant in China, averaged 409 fans per game in 2021-22 and has only topped 3,000 once in its six-year history. 

Hockey does not have the same global appeal as basketball or soccer for one simple reason. It costs far more to play it so far fewer people have access to it, and the corresponding opportunity to truly experience and understand it. If the NHL were to go global, it would have to start in Europe before it entertained any dreams of expanding its footprint into areas such as Central Asia where the KHL has already set up shop.

Even European expansion poses major problems. Is the player pool large enough to support more teams, and what about travel? If the NHL were to expand as far east as Moscow (I’ll get into that Russian angle a little later), it would be nearly half a day later on the league’s eastern edge than its western edge. Acclimation days would have to be built into any travel schedule to allow players to adjust to the time difference and perform at their peak after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Then there’s the time and cost associated with that trans-Atlantic travel. Imagine the Los Angeles Kings flying to Stockholm to begin a European road trip. That’s a 10-plus hour flight. 

Future innovation in air travel could help. Remember the Concorde, which flew at speeds up 1,354 mph (almost three times as fast as current commercial airplanes)? In my nerdy research I discovered that commercial airplane speeds have not increased in nearly five decades. In fact, they have decreased. This is the biggest hurdle to European expansion.

As noted above, any team traveling across the Atlantic would have to be afforded that travel day and probably two more off days to adjust to the new time zone. Those trans-Atlantic road trips would also have to be substantial in length. You wouldn’t want to have to do it more than twice in a season. Some critics might label this unmanageable. I just think it’s a problem to be solved if the league ever renews its appetite for expansion.

Many of the NHL folks to whom I spoke thought that the league should focus any expansion efforts on untapped U.S. and Canadian markets first. For that reason, I have broken potential expansion cities into two categories: a dozen North American markets, and a baker’s dozen European markets.

Many of these markets have been mentioned already, based on their hockey history, their size, the attractiveness of their media markets and their corporate bases. Some of them are just daydreams.

Houston is among the best remaining expansion markets for the NHL in North America. (Getty Images)

North America 

Houston: It’s the first city off everybody’s lips (and the latest ill-founded relocation rumor for the Coyotes) when the topic turns to expansion. Houston boasts the nation’s fifth largest greater metropolitan population and it is the US’s eighth largest media market. It has some history with the Aeros and the league loves the market. If Houston is to become an NHL market, however, it will happen through expansion, not relocation. Forget those Tilman Fertitta rumors that you have heard. Despite the bluster, he is lukewarm at best to the idea of owning a team and without him the league would need a new arena to be built because the NHL doesn’t do tenancy in somebody else’s building. The revenue streams simply don’t exist in such a model.

Quebec City: The former home of the Nordiques has 7-year-old Centre Vidéotron lying in wait for the NHL’s return, along with a willing ownership group and a rabid fan base. The problem with Québec? It’s even smaller than Winnipeg, it does not carry financial clout from a media market perspective, and it does not have the corporate base that is so vital to sponsorships. Even so, it would be cool to see the home of the famed international Pee Wee tournament get another kick at the can.

Portland: The Coyotes nearly moved here (unlike any of the other rumored relocation markets). It has the Moda Center and it makes sense from a geographical and financial standpoint, given big tech’s footprint there.

San Diego: No market perplexes more than San Diego, which boasts a top-20 metropolitan population, plenty of money and a corporate presence. Somehow, the city with the nation’s best weather has not been able to support NFL and NBA franchises, but the AHL’s Gulls are regularly among that league’s top draws. Seriously, what player would not want to play in San Diego?

Austin: More than a few NHL execs have noted the league’s interest in another Texas market because of its corporate base, its population’s disposable income, its growth, its new arena and the opportunity to be the first pro sport in town.

Kansas City: KC has NHL-ready T-Mobile Center and a (failed) history with the league. The Scouts played there from 1974 to 1976. They had a pretty sweet color scheme (and a nickname that would have to change). 

Milwaukee: There was talk of Milwaukee getting a team as far back as the 80s. Former Blackhawks owner William Wirtz may have had something to do with that not happening. Wisconsin is a hockey state, but Milwaukee is a relatively small market for the NHL with a greater metropolitan population around 1.5 million.

Salt Lake City: The NBA’s Jazz always seem to draw well. Could a hockey team follow suit?

Hamilton: The Toronto area could support a second team and Jim Balsillie already tried to bring the Coyotes there.

Halifax: I just like the idea of it. It would be the only NHL city in the Atlantic time zone.

New Orleans: I’m not sure how feasible this one is, but I would never skip this road trip.

Atlanta: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t think Atlanta will be afforded a third opportunity after the Flames and Thrashers failed, but thanks to Atlanta, Calgary and Winnipeg have NHL franchises.

The NHL has already staged many Global Series games in Europe, including this 2019 matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers at O2 Arena in Prague, Czechia. (Getty Images)


Stockholm: Sweden’s capital (and largest) city has a greater metropolitan population of nearly 2.4 million. Many of them are hockey fans, but Hovet arena, home of Djurgårdens, seats a little more than 8,000. Gothenburg (12.0444) and Malmö (13,000) have larger arena capacities. Stockholm’s team would have to move into a larger local venue such as Avicii Arena which is still a bit on the small side.

Helsinki: Finland’s capital has a greater metropolitan population of about 1.5 million but it would need a bigger arena than 8,200-seat Helsinki Ice Hall such as Helsinki Halli, which is also a bit on the small side.

Prague: Czechia’s entertaining capital would instantly become one of the favorite stops on the NHL circuit and O2 Arena’s capacity of 17,383 is NHL ready.

London: Ice hockey is not as big in the UK as it is in other European nations, but it would be hard for the NHL to pass up such a large city with a massive wealth and corporate base.

Paris: See above. 

Berlin: Mannheim has the hockey pedigree, but Germany’s capital has a far larger population and corporate base on which to draw. Mercedes-Benz Arena seats 14,200 for hockey, a bit on the small side.

Copenhagen: Add another Scandinavian market to the mix and make Mikkel Bødker and Nikolaj Ehlers happy. 

Zurich: Switzerland’s largest city makes sense for a lot of reasons but Bern regularly draws the Swiss league’s largest crowds. Before the pandemic, Bern was averaging better than 16,000 fans per game. 

Bratislava: An NHL team in Slovakia’s largest city makes sense again, now that former NHLer Miroslav Šatan has rebuilt the nation’s hockey programs to the point where countrymen Juraj Slafkovský and Šimon Nemec were the top two picks at the 2022 NHL Draft. 

Moscow: Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this would have been a difficult proposition, given the existence of the KHL. Now? It’s hard to envision anybody going into business with Vladimir Putin.

Saint Petersburg: See above. Too bad. Saint Petersburg is gorgeous, and it’s a hockey hotbed.

Riga: Latvia’s capital is home to KHL hockey club Dinamo. The Coyotes played an exhibition game there in 2010.

Milan: Northern Italy makes the most sense for that nation and Milan is a wealthy, bustling city of 3.25 million.


In my perfect NHL world,the league would add 12 European markets and four more North American markets, bringing its total to 48 teams. There would be eight divisions of six teams, two of them in Europe.

I noted above that trans-Atlantic road trips would have to be long, with built in rest days to acclimate to the time zone. The other issue would be the playoff series formats, but the league could partially solve this issue by having teams play in playoff pods. The two European divisions would compete against each other until one semifinalist emerged. The six North American divisions would do the same in western, central and eastern pods. 

Then imagine a final four type neutral site where the NHL semifinals and Stanley Cup Final would be held. It would cut off live viewership to many fans, and that is not an issue that should be lightly dismissed, but it would remove the travel issue and the marketing and revenue possibilities from such an event would be intriguing.

If all goes well in Europe, there is plenty of room for expansion there as well — to the point where that continent could boast as many teams as North America.

Top photo: Getty Images

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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