As to be expected, the Coyotapocalypse has sparked much talk about relocation and potential markets for NHL franchises. Everyone is chiming in with their favorite "city or region without a team that should get a team" (Hamilton! KC! Winnipeg! Hartford! Seattle! Quebec! Whitehorse!) , and the bickering about the most deserving has settled into three basic tracks - market size, potential love for major league hockey, and whether or not the market has an "NHL caliber arena". The first is a sheer numbers argument, and the second has no quantifiable means of measurement. The third, however, should be pretty easy to suss out. That is, as long as what constitutes a "NHL arena" has been defined, and whether one is really needed initially - and I'm not sure on either yet.
What got me thinking about this was a commenter on Puck Daddy suggesting that the Coyotes move to Milwaukee, however unlikely such an idea might be, and use the University of Wisconsin Madison's Kohl Center as a temporary solution until a full NHL arena was built in the big city. According to Wikipedia, the capacity listed for that venue (for hockey) is 15,237, and as that's well less than the roughly 18,000 magic number being thrown around for a potential NHL venue, so I dismissed the idea. But then, I took a look at the photo in the article:
Does that look any less like an NHL rink than any arenas the league currently uses? It has 2 levels of suites, 3 levels of seating, and a modern jumbotron scoreboard, just like the big boys. As it's a college venue, it would only be a stop-gap, but it wouldn't look so out of place. This led me to question why a city needs a 17,000 seat arena right now to get a team.
The general consensus is that the most NHL-ready arena in the US or Canada is currently Kansas City's Sprint Center, an 18,555 seat gleaming new venue. It has all the amenities and wouldn't require much work at all to host a team long-term. Thus, KC jumps to the top of the list. Jim Balsillie's current Hamilton plan involves playing in the 17,500 Copps Coliseum; but as it stands, the Copps is an outdated relic, the last of the pre-Palace of Auburn Hills major arenas built. It will likely take several years to convert it into the modern facility a team would need long-term, especially considering any work would need to take place in the short offseason. Still, the capacity would seem to make it a front runner, even in a temporary facility sense.
Meanwhile, both sit empty. Both were built to entice the NHL to either expand or relocate franchises, and neither has happened. Such is the risk of building a major league arena without a team signed on to play there. It's worked in some places - Nashville, for example - but Oklahoma City's venue took essentially an act of thievery to bring the NBA there. With no guarantee of a team, most cities won't build new arenas...and with no new arena, most cities won't get teams. It becomes a circle of status quo.
But it wasn't always that way. Back in the early 1990s, when the NHL was busy growing it's league divisions at a time, teams were often born without arenas ready, leading them to debut in venues that, while being only temporary homes, were still not places you'd expect to find a major league franchise. The San Jose Sharks came into being in San Fransisco, in the small (and old) Cow Palace, while the Senators first apartment was the bizzare half-NHL/half-OHL Ottawa Civic Center. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, played out of a baseball stadium converted to a hockey rink that has since returned to being a baseball stadium. Granted, the mid-90s brought new teams largely to existing NBA arenas that were reconfigured to hold hockey, and the latest round of expansion resulted in entirely new facilities. But, in the Coyotes situation, if someone was willing to take an initial loss to have the team play in a smaller facility temporarily while a new one was built, why should the NHL stop them?
In some sense, it might actually be better for such a situation to occur. As a new team is trying to gain traction in the market, a slightly smaller (around 15,000 seats) venue would be easier to sell out, and provide a better atmosphere for those getting their first taste of the professional game. Also, those sellouts are great for PR. It didn't look good on Peter Karmanos to have thousands of empty when the Hurricanes played in the cavernous Greensboro Coliseum the first few years in Carolina.
Again, this only goes for temporary homes, while larger arenas are constructed. Let's take a few examples. No one would mistake Hartford's much-maligned XL (nee Civic) Center for a long-term NHL rink. It's too cramped, has too few amenities, and not enough suites. But, at only 600 seats lower capacity than the existing Nassau Coliseum, would it look so out of place for 2 or 3 years? Seattle's KeyArena has only 15,000 seats for hockey, and just wouldn't fit the bill as a permanent solution, but it'd certainly keep a team afloat while a new venue was built. And, the MTS Centre in Winnipeg would be more than adequate while awaiting a renovation.
There are, of course, other issues with those markets getting teams. That brings me back to the Coyotes, though. To say that KC and Hamilton are the sole candidates for relocation based on their arenas isn't quite a convincing argument to me, and I believe that existing arenas shouldn't be as much of a factor in any relocation or expansion discussion. Market size and potential should still be the primary metrics. If the NHL or a franchise owner were to come to a city and say, "We're going to put team here," most places would trip over themselves to get an arena built somehow. As long as an available interim space is moderately sized and near the core of the market, a new/relocated team should be in good standing short-term.