Even though I write for Sonics Rising and endorse the return of the NBA to the Emerald City, I do have a confession to make.
Hockey is my #1 sport.
I grew up near Los Angeles, so I saw a lot of Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake, Jari Kurri and all of those classic . I've been following the NHL since my good buddy TJ Wilson introduced me to the greatness that was NHL '91 on the Sega Genesis.
He beat me 7-2, but that is beside the point.
While the NHL Sun Belt Experiment has worked in places like my beloved Los Angeles, San Jose, Dallas, Nashville and Tampa Bay, it hasn't succeeded in other cities. In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers, exhausted from losing tens of millions of dollars each year, sold to Canadian group True North Sports and Entertainment and relocated the franchise to Winnipeg, where they became the second incarnation of the Jets.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has stated many times that despite the Atlanta-to-Winnipeg move, he doesn't like to uproot teams. Earlier this summer, Bettman responded to rumors of a possible relocation of the Arizona Coyotes and/or the Florida Panthers leaving their respective cities.
"I don't know why publications make those things up, even under the guise of a rumor," Bettman said during the Finals between Chicago and Tampa Bay. "The Panthers are not filing for bankruptcy. I don't know where these stories come from, but they're not true."
Even if the rumors are just hot stove sensationalism, the problem isn't.
The Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers are just not cutting it in their respective markets.
This past season, the Coyotes ranked 27th out of 30 with an average attendance of 13,345. That's 77.9% of capacity. Not to be outdone, the Panthers rank dead last in the NHL with 11,265 fans a game with a tepid 66.1% of capacity.
Even though the Coyotes aren't exactly filling the seats, they did just sign an amended two-year lease with the City of Glendale. After that, it's anyone's guess.
The Panthers captured the imagination of South Florida with their improbable run to the Cup Finals in 1996 against Colorado. Fans were throwing rubber rats on the ice (shades of the Detroit octopus), and doing the "Macarena" inside the Miami Arena.
But those good times didn't last. The team has made the playoffs only a handful of times since then, and the lackluster play has turned off the fans.
Panthers CEO Rory Babich has noticed the empty seats at the BB&T Center, where the Panthers play.
"That's (the empty seats) not fun," he told ESPN's Scott Burnside in October. "And it's not acceptable."
While the league has problems in Arizona, Florida and Carolina (who are trying to find new minority ownership partners), the league is about to expand. Both Las Vegas and Quebec City have bids that have made it to the third stage of the expansion process, and Quebec City has already built a state-of-the-art arena. Vegas is currently building theirs.
While the NHL owners stand to make a fortune in expansion fees from two new teams in Vegas and Quebec, they should also look at fixing their troubled franchises.
And that means a possible relocation to Seattle.
Even though Chris Hansen, Ray Bartoszek or anyone else from Seattle did not put in a bid for expansion this time around, eventually a new arena will be in the city, whether it be two years from now, five years, or ten. And when it does, the NBA and NHL will definitely be interested.
Right now, the NHL has 14 teams in the West and 16 in the East. Common sense would tell you that Vegas will go into the Pacific Division, and Quebec in the Atlantic Division. There will be expansion, and a possible relocation down the line, so you can expect the NHL to shuffle their divisions.
First thing they need to do is change the name of their divisions. Pacific, Central, Atlantic and Metro seem too NBA-ish. I'm not saying to go back to the ole Smythe or Adams Division, but maybe put a new twist on it. Perhaps rename the divisions after four of the best NHL legends ever.
I see the Eastern Conference being comprised of the Lemieux and Orr divisions, while the West is made up of Gretzky and Howe. It's a nice little homage to some of the best players who ever donned a jersey.
Here's how I would break it down:
-New Jersey Devils
-Detroit Red Wings (they were better in the Central, but Mike Illitch will have a cow if they move back West)
-St. Louis Blues
-Las Vegas Vipers (best name I could come up with; Rollers or Gamblers seem too 90's roller derby-esque)
-Arizona Coyotes (if they somehow avoid the relocation threat)
-Seattle Metros (I love their 1900s barber shop pole logo with the red & green. They have to bring those back.)
Look, I know it's not perfect, but it's as close to geographical logistics as I could get. And the NHL won't relocate a lot of teams. If they are going to move a team, it's going to be Florida. I still see them trying to make Phoenix work, maybe even moving them back to downtown Phoenix, where they could share an arena with the Suns.
Las Vegas and Quebec will get teams. It's pretty much a done deal. And Seattle?
In five years, you could be wearing a Jonathan Huberdeau Metros jersey.
All hail the red and green barber pole...