When the newest National Hockey League (NHL) franchise was officially announced in June 2016 as part of the league’s expansion to 31 teams, responses were mixed. Canadians’ hopes for the return of a team to Quebéc City or a new arrival to the Greater Toronto Area were dashed when the NHL announced the Vegas Golden Knights as the league’s newcomer.
But in the Sun Belt of the US, excitement abounded.
Slowly but surely, ice hockey is migrating south. While this is not a new development — the first major NHL expansion brought two teams to sunny California 50 years ago — the meteoric rise in hockey’s popularity down south is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, even as Canadians insist that hockey’s true place remains in the frigid north.
Recent changes in the 100-year-old league exhibit a noticeable trend as the moving front of the hockey market extends toward sunnier climes. Of the 15 expansions and relocations since 1991, 10 are located in cities south of the fortieth parallel — stretching from roughly northern California to Maryland.
As with any other region, the ultimate metric of success down south is wins — specifically, Stanley Cup wins. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars have each had multiple successful runs and claimed a Stanley Cup apiece in the last 26 years.
California’s three NHL teams have consistently tallied impressive season records and have been playoff mainstays each year, collectively winning three Stanley Cups — the Anaheim Ducks in 2007; the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.
It is a well-known fact in the league that the road swing through California is, for most visiting teams, a trip through hell; at a critical time in their season as they chase for a playoff spot, the Toronto Maple Leafs recently went 0–3 in their annual Golden State trip.
With the early advent of artificial ice and the continued improvements in arena technology today, hockey has shifted from an outdoor winter pastime to a sport that can be played anywhere at any time of year. A 2015 outdoor game in San Jose between the Kings and San Jose Sharks was played at a balmy 14 °C, nearly twice the average temperature for the league’s previous 14 outdoor games.
While the ice surface was a little choppier than usual, the game passed without incident and was played in front of more than 70,000 fans, underscoring hockey’s surge in popularity in the Sun Belt in recent years.
But is Sin City the right place for a hockey team?
Ice hockey has, in fact, been around for decades in Las Vegas. The city has been home to semi-professional teams since the 1960s, starting with the Gamblers and Wranglers of the ECHL and the Thunder of the International Hockey League, who reached the Conference Finals in both the 1995 and the 1996 seasons. In 1991, Las Vegas hosted an outdoor exhibition game between the NHL’s New York Rangers and the Kings before a crowd of over 13,000.
But the Golden Knights will be Vegas’ first major-league sports team, and the viability of hockey in the desert is about to undergo a second trial, as the on- and off-ice struggles of the Arizona, formerly Phoenix, Coyotes continue. With a population of 2 million and a dearth of any other major sports franchise, Las Vegas is being touted as a fertile hockey market. Early results are promising as the Knights hit their mark of selling 13,800 season tickets for their inaugural 2017–2018 campaign.
Importantly, the team also has a brand new home arena: the $500 million T-Mobile Arena om the vegas strip which opened for events last year.
The United States hockey program has been challenging Canada’s hockey supremacy for years. Their gold medal win against Team Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championships was a shot heard around the world — the Americans have arrived. Leafs prodigy Auston Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is thus a product of the desert. He is heralded as a future NHL superstar and is currently on track to break the Leafs rookie single-season points record set by Wendel Clark in the 1985–1986 season.
The evolution of the NHL to warmer climes is unstoppable, even if potential northern markets continue to go untapped. The powerhouse of American ice hockey talent may be in large part originating in the growing fan market of the Sun Belt, where the league’s foray into the desert is creating a new generation of hockey players and fans.