Southern expansion completed the map
Phil Esposito says he lost a marriage and millions of dollars in his obsession to bring an NHL franchise to Tampa Bay. He would do it all again.
“I don’t blame my ex-wife at all,” said Esposito, the Hall of Fame player who won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins. “I was insane, possessed. I put every penny I had into it. I was not not going to get a team for Tampa Bay. It was worth everything I went through.”
Esposito’s obsession to bring the NHL to the state of Florida, which he first wrote down as a goal on a restaurant napkin after being fired as general manager of the New York Rangers in 1989, played a central role in the NHL’s expansion into the Sun Belt, a series of moves that has resulted in more hits than misses.
The first distinct Sun Belt team was the San Jose Sharks, awarded in 1990, perfectly timed two years after the arrival via trade of hockey’s lone mainstream superstar, Wayne Gretzky, in Los Angeles. The Tampa Bay Lightning began play in 1992.
Esposito and Gretzky are the two most influential figures in the NHL’s Sun Belt story. Esposito was the entrepreneur who lined up investors and relentlessly pitched NHL President John Ziegler and major influencers, such as Blackhawks owner William Wirtz and Flyers owner Ed Snider. “I could not have done it without the support of Ziggy and Ed and Billy Wirtz,” Esposito said. Kings owner Bruce McNall used Gretzky to spread the gospel of the NHL and the Kings in different markets across the U.S.
|With the help of Phil Esposito, shown in 2011, the Southern U.S. warmed up to hockey.
“When we got Wayne from Edmonton, all of a sudden Bruce McNall had us playing a very unique preseason schedule — neutral-site games in Florida, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Las Vegas … you name it,” said longtime Kings left wing (and current president) Luc Robitaille. “Bruce had the vision to know what Wayne could mean to the NHL in the U.S. beyond the traditional cities. We’d have dinners the night before with the mayors. The players used to call these neutral-site games our ‘rock and roll tour.’”
At an exhibition game in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1990, the ice was so poor because of the hot weather that concrete was visible in the playing surface near the Kings’ bench. In a preseason game in 1991 in a lot outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, there were grasshoppers all over the ice. “They’d hop once, maybe twice, and then just freeze and you skated over them,” Robitaille said. “It was crazy and at times maybe not too safe, but we understood it. Wayne was our Babe Ruth.” Two days after the game in Vegas, an exhibition game for the Kings in Charlotte was canceled because the ice was unplayable. “Considering how awful the conditions were for many of those games we played, imagine how bad that ice in Charlotte must have been,” Robitaille said with a laugh.
But the Kings’ tour and the arrival of Florida’s first team made their mark. In 1993, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (the franchise most linked to the Gretzky Effect) and Florida Panthers (fulfilling Esposito’s ambition for multiple NHL teams in Florida) arrived as expansion franchises, and the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. In 1996, the Winnipeg Jets were relocated to Phoenix and named the Coyotes. A year later, the Hartford Whalers moved to the Raleigh-Durham region and became the Carolina Hurricanes. The Atlanta Thrashers were awarded in 1997, and the expansion Nashville Predators started play in 1998.
“With the Sun Belt expansion, the NHL seemed more like a complete map,” said Sean Henry, president and CEO in Nashville and a former chief operating officer with the Lightning. “When you look at where the NHL is in the U.S. and Canada, we’re as strong geographically across North America as any league in major pro sports.”
While there have been some ownership and geographic challenges, most of the Sun Belt clubs have enjoyed success. The Sharks were a hit from the start and continue to fill the arena known as “The Tank.” The Predators sold out 45 of their 46 home games last season and, according to Henry, have 200 corporate sponsors. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and have become a hot ticket in recent years as the team has contended again under owner Jeff Vinik and GM Steve Yzerman. The Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and have developed a strong following of their own, away from the Kings. Over 24 years in Dallas (after 25 in Minnesota), the Stars have capitalized on the growth of the Dallas-Fort Worth market — 4.3 million people when they arrived in 1993, 7 million people today — and rebounded from the dark days at the end of Tom Hicks’ ownership to have 14,000 season-ticket subscribers under fifth-year owner Tom Gaglardi.
“The Sun Belt expansion hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but it has been successful and it was the intelligent thing for the NHL to do,” said Stars President Jim Lites, who has been with the club for 20 years over three stints. “The NHL didn’t make it in a tough pro sports market like Atlanta (arrived in 1999, moved to Winnipeg in 2011). But then you see San Jose, which has been a knockout success, and the varying degrees of success the other Sun Belt teams have had. All of us are here to stay.”
Lites and Esposito addressed two Sun Belt franchises that have struggled over the years, the Panthers and Coyotes, and pointed to the same culprit.
“They built their arenas in the wrong places,” Esposito said with exasperation, referring to Florida’s venue in Sunrise and Arizona’s in Glendale.
Added Lites, “Through no fault of the current team owners, the locations of those arenas make it harder on them to be successful than it should be.”
Coyotes President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc does not argue the point.
“The decision to take the franchise to Glendale by previous ownership was a mistake, built on a strategy of hope that westward expansion would continue in the area,” LeBlanc said. “But it didn’t happen that way, and we have to go where our customers are.”
|Hockey legend Gordie Howe and original Sharks co-owner George Gund III show off the team’s original colors in 1991.
The Panthers and Coyotes have finished in the bottom third in attendance in the NHL over the five years. Although the Panthers will stay in Sunrise long term after working out an improved lease with Broward County, the Coyotes were given an out by the city of Glendale to explore other locations in the Phoenix area.
“The potential for this franchise to become solid and great is much higher as a result,” said LeBlanc, who has worked on a partnership with Arizona State University on a proposed new arena in Tempe. “We figure that we will have a much clearer picture of the path to success by June.”
The Sun Belt teams have been around long enough to be held to the same high standards as the longer-standing NHL franchises.
“There’s a kinship with the other warm-weather clubs and we talk amongst ourselves about what works and doesn’t,” Lites said. “It’s no longer about educating fans about the sport anymore. All of our fans want what everyone wants — a championship.”
Next up for the Sun Belt: Las Vegas, starting next season.
The NHL’s newest franchise came up in conversation a few weeks ago, when Esposito made his most recent semiannual phone call to Ziegler, who is enjoying retirement in Florida. Esposito and Ziegler often reminisce about the birth of the Lightning and early days of Sun Belt expansion.
“Ziggy said to me the other day, ‘So I see they’re in Las Vegas now for a 31st team. What do you think?” Esposito recalled. “I told him that I never worry about the quality of play because these days you can get great players from all over the globe.
“But we did enjoy the idea of the NHL being in such a hot, very nontraditional place like Vegas. I said, ‘Commissioner, I think we were on to something, my friend.”
Chris Botta is a freelance writer and independent communications consultant based in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.