Welcome to a new feature here on the ol’ blog, I’m calling Blue Sky Lab. Basically, the idea of this feature is to periodically do a bit of blue sky thinking or brainstorming on a given topic. Today I tackle the evergreen topic of National Hockey League franchise relocation. It is a constant topic of speculation among the “man on the street” and I thought I’d try and put some of those thoughts down on electronic paper. This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed the topic on this blog. Three years ago I wrote a three-part open letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, with Part 2 specifically discussing expansion, contraction and relocation. I gave fairly brief descriptions why different locations might or might not work.

I was admittedly clearly wrong about the viability of Winnipeg as this past season’s return of the NHL has shown. The ownership group led by Mark Chipman and David Thomson have demonstrated that with superb organisation, a dedicated fanbase, and a long-term plan for viability (aided by Thomson’s personal fortune as the 17th richest man on earth) an NHL team can succeed even in the smallest of markets.

With that in mind I thought I’d dig a bit deeper and rank the Top 15 markets likely to land an NHL franchise should one become available (*cough* Coyotes *cough*). This should be seen as a ranking of the current state of facilities, potential ownership, and interest in local fanbase. It is of course subject to change on the drop of a hat (the Thrashers “sudden” move came as a shock to general observers whom had thought the Coyotes would have left their current city first) and may be updated periodically.

Some major metropolitan areas in North America have been excluded for the current ranking for a variety of reasons. Cities with arenas well-below NHL standards (using Winnipeg’s MTS Centre as the rough minimum) or too close to existing franchises in markets that may not be robust enough to support multiple teams were deemed non-starters for this discussion. Beyond that, there were a few cities that conceivably might slide into these rankings in the future depending on circumstances. Those cities currently outside of my Top 15 that might slip in someday include Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Francisco/Oakland, and Sacramento. Obviously San Francisco/Oakland and Sacramento are regionally too close to the San Jose Sharks right now, but as that region is sufficiently above average in wealth (with the presence of Silicon Valley) there might be future interest in a second NHL franchise. Cincinnati and Indianapolis are smaller metropolitan areas, but with traditional links to hockey, so they remain just off the radar.

This is, of course, speculation, as rumours persist that somehow the Phoenix Coyotes may continue beyond the current season, due to possible continued subsidisation by Glendale city council, the NHL, and/or through a new owner foolish enough to take on a team that reportedly loses $40 million dollars annually.

Even if the Coyotes franchise gets removed from the market, it doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be movement in the foreseeable future as the sad plight of the Thrashers demonstrated.

Ranking: Top 15 Future NHL Markets

(as of February 25, 2012)

15. Orlando, FL
(metro population: 2.1 million)

I know what you are all thinking, this is crazy. I agree. It’s a bat-shit crazy location to put a top calibre professional hockey team. But then again, NHL franchises are already located in the Tampa Bay and Greater Miami areas, so what’s really crazy about it? Orlando has all the amenities that a top-tier franchise would need with the brand new Amway Center (home of the NBA’s Magic) available to them. The 2012-2013 season will see the launch of the reincarnated Orlando Solar Bears in the East Coast Hockey League (the ECHL is effectively North America’s third division of professional hockey).

And you thought that the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim was a dumb name.

Chance of landing NHL team: 1000-1

14. San Antonio, TX
(metro population: 2.1 million)

Continuing with the idea that if a city can support an NBA team, perhaps an NHL franchise isn’t too far behind comes San Antonio. The city is already home to the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage (one level below the NHL) and has a modern arena (though slightly smaller capacity for hockey than NHL standards). With the defensive style that the NBA’s Spurs play and with the large military population in the metro area, perhaps the city is a natural home for the trap style systems employed by the Lightning, Coyotes or Devils.

Spurs Silver Dancers: The Only Reason Nobody Falls Asleep at a Spurs Game

Chance of landing NHL team: 950-1

13. Salt Lake City, UT
(metro population: 1.1 million)

Salt Lake City, nestled in the heart of ski country is a logical place to put a winter sports team, such as hockey. It actually makes more sense than having an NBA franchise called the Jazz. Uncomfirmed Fact: Most Salt Lake City residents still believe that John Stockton and Karl Malone play for the team.

I'm also shocked to discover that the only Jazz players I could name both retired in 2003.

Surprisingly, the highest level of professional hockey in the Salt Lake City area are the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL. Salt Lake City is a fairly small metropolitan area by U.S. standards and could struggle to support another major professional sports team, but would make for a nice regional rival to the Colorado Avalanche. One obstacle would be the slightly below NHL minimum standard seating capacity at the Jazz’s EnergySolutions Arena.

Chance of landing NHL team: 750-1

12. Hartford, CT
(metro population: 1.2 million)

This one seems familiar. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Oh, that's right.

Yep, it shouldn’t be much surprise that Hartford, former home of the Hartford Whalers would want to get back in on the NHL franchise-owning business. Watching how successfully Winnipeg has handled returning to the league as a smaller market, there is a continued appetite for top-tier hockey in Connecticut. They have even renamed their AHL franchise from the Hartford Wolf Pack to the Connecticut Whale (as if that would fool anyone). Their current arena is old and small by NHL standards, but that type of detail could conceivably work under the right ownership and fan buy-in. NHL officials have occasionally mentioned the idea of wanting to right the wrongs of the Whalers moving to Carolina (though not by reversing that move). There is also the particular issue of already having four NHL franchises (Bruins, Devils, Rangers and Islanders) relatively nearby which diminishes the overall NHL goal of having a widespread regional distribution to maximise potential television viewership.

Chance of landing NHL team: 400-1

11. Atlanta, GA
(metro population: 5.3 million)

This hasn’t worked before. Twice. For whatever reason, whether it has been poor ownership, lack of an engaged fanbase or some sort of voodoo spell, Atlanta just didn’t seem to be able to catch a break in the National Hockey League.

Patrik Stefan: Cursed.

All that being said, Atlanta is a huge city, huge television market and a major centre for corporate headquarters. There will be another go at an NHL franchise here. It just might take another long hiatus (the time between the Flames departure and the Thrashers arrival was 19 years).

Chance of landing NHL team: 250-1

10. Milwaukee, WI
(metro population: 1.6 million)

Sufficient sized city in a hockey-mad region with an acceptable NHL-sized arena. Yes. In fact, there are currently 12 NHL players playing in the league that were born in Wisconsin. How cool would it be to put an NHL team in the state that has produced players such as Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter, Joe Pavelski and Drew Stafford?

Phil "The Thrill" Kessel would clearly be ecstatic.

Throw in the natural regional rivalries that would happen anytime the team would play Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago or St. Louis and you’ve got ample reasons to throw the Beer City an NHL team. The city’s current hockey team in the AHL are one of two teams in that league called the Admirals. It’s almost like they aren’t even trying to be taken seriously.

Chance of landing NHL team: 100-1

9. Cleveland, OH
(metro population: 2.1 million)

Another major city in the Northern U.S. with a modern arena and an AHL franchise, Cleveland would make a decent landing spot for an NHL team. There are some hiccups to be dealt with. One, the lone incarnation of an NHL team in Cleveland, the Barons, only lasted two years in the 1970s before they merged with the Minnesota North Stars (making an awfully long 13 hour drive for Cleveland fans to attend “home” games). The second, an NHL team would likely by owned by Cavaliers (NBA) and Lake Erie Monsters (AHL) owner Dan Gilbert who has a preference for writing notes in Comic Sans.

LeBron was always more of a fan of Papyrus.

I don’t see Cleveland being currently on the NHL’s map, but if troubled state neighbour Columbus relocates, Cleveland becomes a viable target (either for the Blue Jackets themselves or a different team once CBJ have left state).

Chance of landing NHL team: 90-1

8. Las Vegas, NV
(metro population: 2.0 million)

I’m still not comfortable with a professional sports team in Las Vegas, especially one so image-conscious as the NHL. There are so many potential vices for the players there, the potential for the seedy gambling world to directly influence the integrity of the game, and the potential for the team to inevitably flop financially. It would be very difficult to sell 17,000 tickets per game, 41 times per year with the variety of entertainment options available in Sin City. Is there enough appetite for locals to attend or will the team rely mainly on transient support from tourists there to see their own home teams? The MGM Grand Arena is however, a viable location, as demonstrated in pre-season exhibition games and admittedly a blindspot in my previous assessment. The race to get a pro sports team into Vegas seems to be one of chicken, hoping that one of the major five sports (football, basketball, hockey, baseball, and soccer) blinks first. There must clearly be reasons why no one has stepped up yet. That being said, I can’t rule out the penchant for visionary craziness that persists in the NHL.

Future Las Vegas NHL Owner Jerry Bruckheimer: The Definition of Visionary Craziness.

Chance of landing NHL team: 75-1

7. Hamilton/Golden Horseshoe, ON
(metro population: 720,000 (Hamilton)/ 6.5 million (Golden Horseshoe))

I lump this all together because I think the NHL is hesitant to bring another franchise into the greater Toronto area for fear of the wrath of the Maple Leafs organisation. That being said, if – and it is an if – if an NHL franchise were to come to Hamilton it would immediately rule out the potential for another team somewhere else in the Golden Horseshoe (and vice versa). Because of that, I figure it makes sense to group the two somewhat overlapping markets together. Hamilton is a viable location for an NHL team to bring the moving vans immediately with the aging Copps Coliseum ready to host NHL size crowds at a moments’ notice. Whether it would be a long-term home to a team or merely a temporary location while a modern arena might be built in another part of the region (Vaughn and Markham are potential destinations) is unclear. We do know that Research-In-Motion honcho Jim Balsillie has tried multiple times to pry teams away from their current locations and unsuccessfully bring them to Hamilton.

Jim Balsillie: Trying to bring an NHL team to Hamilton is only the ninth craziest thing he's attempted in the past five years.

It would seem as though he is forever on the Board of Governors unwanted list, so any potential owner would probably have to handle themselves a bit more deferentially (see the way Chipman/Thomson handled themselves in Winnipeg). That being said, another NHL team in a region this populous with such an obvious love of hockey would be a no-brainer reason to print money. It would seem to inevitably be only a matter of time.

Chance of landing NHL team: 50-1

6. Seattle, WA
(metro population: 3.4 million)

Seattle has long been my favourite potential location for an NHL franchise. It just makes so much sense as a market. It’s got lots of potential corporate support from giants such as Microsoft and Starbucks, has a large metropolitan population with above-average family incomes, is a region that loves hockey, would have a natural rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks, and due to the loss of the SuperSonics, there would be little seasonal competition for fan attention (baseball and football seasons would only have a small overlap). The major drawback, and the reason I don’t have them ranked higher at the moment, is the condition of the KeyArena. It’s an old building in need of major renovations (or replacement) and has a seating capacity for hockey barely at the current minimum level employed in Winnipeg. There might be too many upfront costs to bear in the current environment for a potential owner. But that can change at a moment’s notice. There have been rumblings recently of some interest in the city that could shoot them quickly up to number one on this list. Stay tuned.

Kurt Cobain: How Many Americans Still Picture Seattle Residents.

Chance of landing NHL team: 40-1

5. Quebec, QC
(metro population: 765,000)

Never underestimate the power of combining public will, public funds, and a madcap multi-millionaire. Such is the potential mix in la Ville de Quebec. There is certainly public support for the return of the NHL after they tragically lost the Nordiques to Colorado (who subsequently decided to immediately rub it in Quebec’s face by winning a Stanley Cup and then doing it a few years later just because). Traveling packs of Nordiques fans have been turning up all over the NHL to cheer/jeer on the local teams and to show that they are committed to supporting a team. I had previously dismissed Quebec as a landing spot for an NHL franchise, but after seeing Winnipeg’s triumphant return anything is possible.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the city and province are committed to building a new modern arena to replace la Colisee. It is ostensibly being built regardless of the return of the NHL (but who is anyone kidding?) and to help bid for hosting a future Winter Olympics. With the corporate support of Quebecor (led by the suave Bond villain-esque Pierre Karl Peladeau) this plan seems to have life.

"You will have a seat, won't you, Mr. Bettman?"

Chance of landing NHL team: 25-1

4. Oklahoma City, OK
(metro population: 1.3 million)

You didn’t see this one being so high up, did you? Nope, neither did I. But it makes some sort of sense. They have a brand new arena, ready to be filled with an NHL franchise. They have an exciting young NBA team that has been well supported. They currently are an AHL hockey market, playing home to the Edmonton Oilers farm team (the Barons), so they are getting a taste of young, exciting offensive players. See the synergy here?

Because of a lack of other major professional sports who says that OK City couldn’t support both an NBA and an NHL team (obviously the AHL team would relocate)? That only requires filling the building at home roughly 80 nights of the year. Besides, the city has already shown it is capable of stealing one city’s pro sports team successfully, why not do it again?

Seattle to Oklahoma City: Please take care of Kevin for us. Cheers.

Because I secretly suspect that Gary Bettman gets many of his ideas from the NBA, I wouldn’t rule this out as a legitimate option.

Chance of landing NHL team: 15-1

3. Kansas City, MO
(metro population: 2.0 million)

Long used to being on the list of potential NHL franchises, Kansas City is getting achingly close (for them). They have a nearly brand new modern arena just sitting waiting to be occupied. It just happens to be operated by AEG, the owner of multiple sports teams and arenas, including the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings, of course, aren’t moving, but because of that connection NHL pre-season games have been played in Kansas City to gauge fan interest. Most recently, the Sprint Center sold out a pre-season game between the Kings and Penguins this past September.

The New York Islanders have been rumoured to use Kansas City as a potential location in negotiations if owner Charles Wang doesn’t get the public funding support needed for his pet on Long Island, the Lighthouse Project, which would replace the Nassau Coliseum.

Whether it is the Islanders or another franchise, it looks as if Kansas City has the right connections within the Board of Governors and the right conditions for a potential franchise to make it a spot that the league would seriously consider if and when relocation is needed. The only cautionary tale I can offer is that the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton was a state-of-the-art facility when it was opened in 1985 and it has yet been host to an NHL team.

With the obvious exception of the two seasons it played host to the Hamilton Steelheads

Chance of landing NHL team: 8-1

2. Houston, TX
(metro population: 5.9 million)

Gary Bettman’s head must get dizzy any time he thinks about Houston. It’s just way too big not to be an NHL market. Much along the same logic that the NHL had to be in Atlanta and Phoenix, how could they justify not being in Houston?

The city, like Phoenix, has every other major sport you can name, but inexplicably (or naturally) they aren’t yet part of the hockey big times. With an AHL team already there and a modern arena, what more could they want? How about a natural (er, unnatural?) rivalry with the Dallas Stars?

Just like the Texans are "rivals" with the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s such a large city that notably hasn’t yet had the chance to fail as an NHL city that it’s probably going to happen sooner or later.

Chance of landing NHL team: 4-1

1. Portland, OR
(metro population: 2.2 million)

For many of the same reasons that make Seattle a great location for an NHL team, so too does Portland. It has several potential corporate sponsors, a decent level of family income, is a natural hockey market, would have rivalries with San Jose and Vancouver. Oh, and the Rose Garden is already built to NHL standards. Like you could “move a team there this summer” ready.

This should happen. Also, how cool would it be for Fred and Carrie from Portlandia to be in charge of scouting for the Portland Thinkers NHL franchise? They’ve already demonstrated their baseball aptitude.

Forget trying to move teams to illogical places and put one in a place that would be immediately make sense.

Chance of landing NHL team: 2-1