NHL expanding to Vegas. So, now what?

The NHL finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in hockey Wednesday – that Las Vegas will become the league’s latest expansion city and the 31st team in the league.

It’s an interesting choice for many reasons. Las Vegas is another warm-weather Sun Belt market, but it’s also a tourist destination and the largest U.S. city (the 30th-largest TV market) without a major-league team of any kind.

While the other major sports leagues have avoided Vegas due to issues with gambling, the NHL is more than happy to embrace the city. It’s a perfect market – a tourist destination that will certainly entice a number of fans of the other 30 NHL teams to make roadtrips, but also give the fans of Nevada a team of their own. It’s been a part of the league’s playbook – tap growing markets with no pro sports teams and therefore become THE team for that city – dominating the media, fan attention and – just as importantly – advertising and business. It’s a blueprint the NBA found success with in Charlotte (and later, Oklahoma City, which I’ll always contend was a market the NHL missed out on), and the NHL has tapped with varying degrees of success in San Jose, Nashville, Columbus and Raleigh.

I’m optimistic about Las Vegas. At best, it becomes a Tampa Bay, San Jose or – to use an NBA comparable – Oklahoma City, where the new team has huge success at the box office and weaves itself into the fabric of the community right away. At worst, it’s Raleigh or Columbus – a team with has a decent, consistent base of support and then becomes a “big deal” during good years.

With 31 teams, the NHL clearly will look to add another, and it turned down Quebec’s application to become that 32nd team this week. While Quebec – like Vegas – has a ready-made arena and can start right away, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman voiced two major concerns. One makes sense – the Canadian dollar’s currently-low value against the U.S. dollar would make it difficult for the new Nordiques to be financially competitive right out of the gate (and that’s a big reason why the original Nordiques & Jets both moved from Canada in the mid-1990s, and the Oilers nearly followed suit).

But the other reason was quizzical – Bettman cited geographic imbalance. Never mind the league has operated for the last few years with 16 teams in one conference and 14 in another, largely because two teams (Detroit and Columbus) begged to be moved to the Eastern Conference. When the NHL went with the 16/14 setup, it was clearly setting the table for two future expansion teams in the western U.S. A Quebec expansion would either create a 17/15 setup, or require one of the Red Wings or Blue Jackets to move west into the brutal Central Division, which likely won’t happen without a significant financial incentive.

It appears the NHL is practically begging Seattle to submit an application (although Kansas City is also sitting there with an already-built NHL-caliber arena and a desire for an NHL team), and essentially is telling Quebec to wait for a relocated Eastern team – much like Winnipeg with the Atlanta Thrashers.

But moves at the NHL also mean moves at the minor pro level. Las Vegas’ entry into the big league will have a ripple effect onto the minors. The AHL will undoubtedly expand, which leaves questions as to where the Vegas team’s affiliate will land. Another team to keep an eye on is Vancouver, which has an AHL squad in Utica, N.Y., but just moved its ECHL affiliation from Kalamazoo (unofficially, but in practice) to Alaska, portending a likely move west with its AHL team. Abbotsford, BC, is a likely possibility. Las Vegas would likely bring another team west.

It also likely means some changes could be in order for the ECHL. Last year, the league voted to cap itself at 30 teams – and that cap will likely be expanded to the number of teams in the other two leagues it’s affiliated with. The ECHL also banned dual affiliations last year, although some teams had them unofficially last season – Cincinnati functioned as a Nashville/Columbus co-op, and Adirondack a Calgary/New Jersey one this past year, while Kalamazoo was officially affiliated with Columbus but drew many of its assigned players from the Vancouver organization. The obvious goal is to have one AHL and one ECHL affiliate for each NHL team, much like the setup of baseball, although NHL roster and the 50-player contract limit mean that ECHL teams will still largely be constructed of free agents with a handful of organizational prospects.

The AHL’s move west opens up northeastern markets for the ECHL. Already, the ECHL has replaced AHL teams in Manchester, N.H.; Norfolk, Va. and Glens Falls, N.Y., and soon will in Worcester, Mass. The only “lost” market for the AHL that hasn’t had a replacement hockey team is Oklahoma City, where the NBA’s Thunder control both viable arenas in town. An NBDL team has scheduling priority in the Cox Center, where the Central Hockey League’s Blazers once played and led the minors in attendance. Portland, Maine – which ultimately lost its AHL team in a series of moves that saw the Arizona Coyotes moving their top affiliate to Tucson – is likely the next. With Worcester getting an expansion team and Portland likely to follow, that would give the ECHL 29 teams, with the need to expand to two markets to get to the stated goal of 31. Utica – if abandoned in another AHL western move – would be a solid city for the league, as it has supported the Comets very well, and is close to Elmira, Reading, Adirondack and the New England teams. Another town to keep an eye on is St. John’s, Newfoundland. While the AHL’s IceCaps are – like the Alaska Aces – geographically on an island, far from the rest of the league, they draw tremendous attendance. However, the parent Montreal Canadiens plan to move the team to Laval, Quebec – a Montreal suburb.

While Las Vegas – and a potential 32nd team – will be a boon for the NHL and for hockey, it’ll also have great ramifications on the ECHL and AHL. We’ll continue to see new markets – and new teams replacing old ones. And the ECHL will be the biggest beneficiary, growing into tradition-rich, hockey-savvy markets who are excited to have it come.