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When the Edmonton Oilers stunned the sports world by trading hockey icon Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, Gary Bettman was still the NBA’s general counsel/senior vice president and LA was the only warm-weather market in the NHL.
Since that trade, the number has grown to 10 teams, Sunbelt teams have won eight Stanley Cups and they have made 18 Stanley Cup Final appearances. Five Sunbelt teams have won the Cup and nine out of the 10 have made it to the Cup Final at least once.
With Tampa Bay one series win away from the first three-peat championship since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s, it is fair to call Bettman’s plan to expand into the southern United States a success on the most basic level, even if the Sunbelt label isn’t one that the commissioner would use.
“It wasn’t that it was a Sunbelt plan,” Bettman said. “It was the fact that people were beginning to recognize the strength and importance of NHL hockey and we were getting lots of expressions of interest from people in places that wanted to have a team — and that was without regard to what the temperature was outside.
“When I came in (on Feb. 1, 1993), there were 24 franchises, eight of which were in Canada. We only had 16 franchises in the United States and three of them were in New York, New Jersey, so what you were looking at was a situation where our footprint wasn’t as strong as the other three major sports based on the number of markets we covered. Many of the places we went happened to be in those warm-weather climates because those were major markets where we weren’t.”
It is important to support Bettman’s analysis by noting that the league has also added teams in colder-weather sites such as Ottawa (1992), Denver (1995), Columbus (2000), Minnesota (2000) and Seattle (2021), but the majority of additions have come in the Sunbelt because the available markets were there.
The San Jose Sharks began play in the 1991-92 season. The Lightning played its first season in 1992-93. The Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers began play in 1993-94, with the Dallas Stars relocating that same season from Minnesota. The Coyotes relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. The Carolina Hurricanes relocated from Hartford in 1997. The Nashville Predators played their first season in 1998-99, the Atlanta Thrashers played their first season in 1999-2000 (eventually moving to Winnipeg in 2011), and the Vegas Golden Knights played their first season in 2017-18.
“I think a lot of people assume that we had a map and we would rank cities and say, ‘This is where we want to go,’ but again, what we were doing was responding to the incredible interest that was being expressed by people in places who wanted a franchise,” Bettman said. “So as we do even now when we’ve done expansion, when you get that interest, you then do your homework to see whether or not, among other things, there’s ownership, there’s an arena, there’s a market that can support the team and that it makes the league stronger.”
|The NHL’s Sunbelt franchises (lists differ)|
|Los Angeles Kings|
|San Jose Sharks|
|Tampa Bay Lightning|
|Vegas Golden Knights|
Bettman has faced plenty of criticism for his steadfast support of the NHL’s newer markets, many of which have suffered difficult financial times and poor performance on the ice. Canadians in particular wonder why the league hasn’t considered more markets in hockey’s birth nation such as Québec or Hamilton, but there is a greater method to this idea of a larger footprint, and it is mainly rooted in opportunity.
“Your question presumes we’re a Canadian and a U.S. league, but I always project that we’re one league and we play to our fans throughout North America, principally in major markets,” Bettman said. “We want to be in places that are vibrant and growing and tend to be interested in sports. Those pieces translate into national business partners, they translate into national media partners, and they translate to an economic engine that is local. It creates jobs. It creates revenues for the local economy and it creates a quality of life, giving people more entertainment and sporting options.”
Financial publications such as Forbes publish annual reports on the valuation of every professional sports franchise. Four Sunbelt franchises (Arizona, Florida, Carolina and Nashville) rank along the NHL’s bottom quarter in the most recent valuations (it should be noted that Ottawa and Winnipeg are also in the bottom quarter), but Bettman puts no stock in team valuations published by media outlets.
“Valuations have always undervalued NHL franchises, and the current level of valuations don’t recognize what the marketplace has been telling us,” he said. “They bear no relationship to the actual value and I place no credence in the published valuations, among other things, because they have no access to the data. They don’t appreciate or understand the strength of NHL hockey.”
Given the recent success of the Lightning, the Hurricanes, the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers and the Predators, Bettman insists that he is no longer concerned with the stability of some of the NHL’s historically troubled southern franchises.
“That’s ancient history,” he said. “All of our Sunbelt teams are doing well. I think that we have been enhanced dramatically as a game and as a league, by all of the places that we have our franchises, particularly the newer ones.
“Now, obviously, the Coyotes need a new arena and they have taken positive steps toward that recently, but if you look at the Panthers, the Lightning, the Hurricanes, the Stars, the Predators, the Ducks, the Kings, the Sharks, the Golden Knights and the Coyotes, they’re all getting great support in their communities. Our clubs aren’t struggling. We’re back from COVID, we’re playing to well over 90 percent of capacity and our buildings have been packed for the playoffs, so we’re in a very good place.
Bettman does not view Tampa’s quest for a three-peat as validation of the league’s Sunbelt plan; but rather a validation of a greater plan.
“The fact is, we have an extraordinarily competitive game,” he said. “We probably have the best competitive balance of all the major sports and as long as our sport is entertaining, exciting and competitive, then different teams are going to win at different times. It’s not about whether or not a U.S. team won, or a major market team won, or a Canadian team won. It’s about the overall health of our game.”
Bettman wasn’t the commissioner when the Gretzky trade set many of these pieces in motion, but he is quick to note the importance of that seminal event, even if Gretzky won’t.
“Wayne is always so humble,” Bettman said. “To him, it’s about the game and it always has been, but that trade certainly was a pivotal moment because it proved that NHL hockey could create a tremendous amount of interest and get a tremendous amount of support from places that people didn’t necessarily think were all that interested in hockey.
“What it proves is when people have a chance to experience NHL hockey, even in new markets where people may not be as familiar with the game, over time, franchises can do very, very well.”
Top photo: The Tampa Bay Lightning accept the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champs (Getty Images)