The Vegas Golden Knights have started their inaugural NHL season 4-1, boosted by surprisingly passionate fans. This sounds like something you would hear in an alternate universe—one where the late, villainous Harold Ballard was an honest businessman, where Wayne Gretzky was never traded, and where the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Detroit Red Wings to win last year’s Stanley Cup. But it is, in fact, reality.
When the NHL announced over a year ago that it would expand to Las Vegas, the hockey world didn’t expect the team to succeed. In a smaller city with most people more concerned with having cards in their hands than hockey tickets, it seemed unlikely that the smallest of the top North American sporting leagues would be able to survive. However, the Golden Knights have hit the ground running and show promise to provide sustainability in the long run.
Las Vegas christened the T-Mobile Arena in their third game to a sell-out crowd, while enjoying impressive fan support at their two prior games in Dallas and Arizona. They won their first three games convincingly—an unprecedented feat for a brand-new team made even more surprising when considering the roster was composed largely of young, undeveloped players. By virtually any measure, the franchise’s launch passed with flying colours.
Such success for a hockey team in an unestablished sports market would mean a lot for the future of NHL expansion. If Vegas continues to see this level of support, it will encourage the league to branch out even further to other untapped hockey markets. Fans could see a collection of expansion franchises enter the NHL within the next decade. Such a period would be reminiscent of the 1990s, when teams like the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes came into existence.
The immediate candidates for expansion are already apparent. For several years now, rumours have circulated not only about Las Vegas, but also about Seattle landing a franchise to establish a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks, and the Nordiques returning to Quebec City. Quebec City bid on a team at the same time as Vegas, but concerns including doubts about the Canadian dollar’s relative weakness as well as maintaining the geographic balance of the league ultimately led the NHL to reject the bid. Seattle, meanwhile, just needs an NHL-suitable arena—which is already in the planning stages of development—in order to have the infrastructure to support a new team. If Vegas continues to profit, then it could just be a matter of time before Quebec and Seattle get their own clubs.
Beyond the obvious front-runners, there are other contenders for the creation of a new NHL franchise. Just days after the Golden Knights began their inaugural season, Tilman Fertitta—new owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets—announced that he was looking into getting an NHL team in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States. Additionally, Portland and Kansas City have arenas capable of hosting an NHL team, but the league previously feared that these cities lacked the necessary fan support needed for a new franchise. With the strong start in Las Vegas, the NHL may be more optimistic with these unconventional locations.
Time will tell whether or not the Golden Knights expansion will pan out, but the early signs are promising. If it does, the hockey world could see rapid expansion of the professional game over the next 10 years. With 31 clubs across the United States and Canada, the NHL could boast the most franchises of any major North American sports league, and begin to rival the popularity of the NBA, NFL, and MLB. So, to all the hockey fans from the cities where having a home NHL franchise seems like a pipe dream, don’t give up. If the early success of Vegas is any indication, the wait could be much shorter than expected.