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Past and Future NHL Expansion

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Figure 1 Then there were 31: The Vegas Golden Knights

From 1942 to 1967, the NHL consisted of six teams mainly clustered in the east: Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. By 1967, Major League Baseball had 20 teams from coast to coast. The NFL had 15 teams from coast to coast. Even the NBA, founded only 30 years prior, had 10 teams across the country.

Then There Were 12

The NHL realized it was time to catch up, and catch up it did. The NHL expansion of 1967 doubled the size of the league, making it the biggest single-year expansion in any major professional sport. The six teams added in 1967:

  • California Seals (merged with the North Stars in 1978)
  • Los Angeles Kings
  • Minnesota North Stars (became the Dallas Stars in 1993)
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • Pittsburg Penguins
  • Louis Blues

50 Years Later, There Were 31

Added to what was referred to as the Original Six, these NHL expansion cities brought the NHL to a total of 12 teams and gave the league a footprint across North America. From then on, NHL expansion has proceeded in the more usual way, with a small number of NHL expansion cities coming in every so often. Here is how it has played out.

  • 14 teams. In 1970, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL.
  • 16 teams. In 1972, the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames (Calgary Flames as of 1980) joined the NHL.
  • 18 teams. In 1974, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts joined the NHL. (In 1976, the Scouts became the Colorado Rockies and then the New Jersey Devils in 1982.)
  • 17 teams. In 1978, the Seals became the Cleveland Barons and then merged with the North Stars.
  • 21 teams. In 1979, the NHL adds four teams from the WHA: Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets.
    • The Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.
    • The Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995.
    • The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in 1996.
  • 22 teams. In 1991, the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL.
  • 24 teams. In 1992, the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning joined the NHL.
  • 26 teams. In 1993, the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim joined the NHL.
  • 27 teams. In 1998, the Nashville Predators joined the NHL.
  • 28 teams. In 1999, the Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets as of 2011) joined the NHL.
  • 30 teams. In 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the NHL.
  • 31 teams. In 2016, the Vegas Golden Knights joined the NHL.

Here are a few notable achievements by teams in NHL expansion cities.

  • The Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1973-74, after coming into the league in 1967. No expansion team has done it quicker.
  • As most readers may remember, the Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first season (2017-2018). Some experts cite that achievement in calling the Knights the most successful expansion team ever, in any major sport.
  • The St. Louis Blues also reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, but in that case all six expansion teams were in the same division, making it a certainty one of them would reach the Final. 

Future NHL Expansion

In 2018, the NHL Board of Governors awarded a franchise to Seattle. The team, as yet unnamed, will play its first season in 2021-22, bringing the league to 32 teams. Interestingly, each of the expansion teams of 1967 had to pay an Original Six team $2 million to enter the NHL. The Seattle franchise has to pay the league a $650 million expansion fee that will be split among all current teams except the Golden Knights — about $21.7 million per team.

Another interesting side note: Seattle has won the Stanley Cup! In 1917, before the NHL, the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association became the first U.S. team to win the Cup, beating the Montreal Canadiens (then in the National Hockey Association) 3-1. More than a century later, top-tier hockey comes back to Seattle. 

Many other locations have been cited as having great potential for future NHL expansion. Among the names that crop up in conversation include:

  • Cincinnati
  • Cleveland
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Hamilton, Ontario
  • Hartford
  • Houston
  • Indianapolis
  • Kansas City
  • Milwaukee
  • Portland
  • Quebec City
  • Salt Lake City
  • San Francisco
  • Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

One thing is for sure: The NHL has a lot of options for expansion. Beyond Canada and the U.S., there are even some visionaries (dreamers?) who talk about a global NHL that would include teams from far-flung places such as Helsinki (Finland), Moscow (Russia), Prague (Czech Republic), Sapporo (Japan) and Mexico City (Mexico). It seems pretty wild, but in 1967 a lot of people probably thought NHL hockey in Florida was rather farfetched.

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)