The street is called Broadway in Nashville. There are notorious honky tonks for blocks. The city chose this as the location for its new sports arena when construction started in the mid-1990s.
A main reason for building the arena was to attract an NBA or NHL team. Craig Leipold, a wealthy gent from Racine, Wis., was interested in owning such a team. He got together with the Nashville powers, and they gave Leipold this instruction:
“Go out and start hunting for an NBA or NHL franchise for us.’’
He looked for a basketball team. The Sacramento Kings were mentioned as a possibility for Nashville, but that didn’t gain much steam. So, Leipold looked to the NHL.
Gary Bettman had become the first NHL official with the title of commissioner when hired on Feb. 1, 1993. His goal was to continue to expand the NHL’s national footprint with both a southern and western expansion.
Bettman was on the job for three months when it was officially announced by Norm Green that he would be moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas. The 25-year anniversary was Wednesday, if you want to let out one of those vile chants toward Norm that rocked Met Center.
The NHL had grown from 21 to 26 teams by expanding to San Jose in 1991, to Tampa Bay and Ottawa in 1992 and to Anaheim and Florida (Miami) in 1993. Also, the North Stars’ move to Dallas was followed by Quebec to Denver, Winnipeg to Phoenix and Hartford to Carolina.
All of this happened in six years, and then Leipold and Nashville were able to land the 27th franchise for the 1998-99 season.
Bettman was derided for years as loudly in many hockey arenas as was the cowardly Green, a villain in absentia, in those final days at Met Center. There was a perception that he messed up the NHL by placing franchises in and allowing moves to “non-hockey” locations.
Except, a quarter-century later, the expansion and the relocations of the Bettman Era have done more to enhance the sport than even he might have imagined.
There have been failures. Atlanta ignored major league hockey for the second time, providing Winnipeg with a second chance for NHL success that it has seized. Phoenix has been a mess; the Florida Panthers don’t draw; and Raleigh-Durham has turned blasé about the Hurricanes after they won a Stanley Cup early (2006) in franchise history.
Every major league has a few clunkers when it comes to attracting crowds, even the NFL. And the major successes of the current NHL are astounding:
The early response to the NHL was tepid in Nashville, and Leipold sold the Predators on Dec. 7, 2007, and bought the Wild a month later. Now, the Predators have had a couple of playoff runs and the place is bonkers for hockey.
And now this: There was no league that seemed better-suited for Las Vegas than the NBA, with its star power, with its glitz, yet the NHL beat ’em to Vegas. Then, Bettman gave the Golden Knights a great deal on players for a big price ($500 million), and hockey is the greatest thing going in a city with great things going every night.
Next, the NHL is going to beat the NBA to Seattle. For 41 years, the Supersonics were part of Seattle’s soul, and when it wasn’t quick to build a new arena, the alleged genius David Stern allowed the franchise to move to Oklahoma City.
Really? You’re going to trade the Seattle market for Oklahoma City. Forget the full arena in OKC. The Seattle market has 2½ million more people.
Nashville, Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and soon Seattle … alive with hockey fever. And the NBA finds itself relocated in secondary markets such as Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans (now small with a low economic base).
“The expansion to the South and the West has worked, without a doubt,’’ Leipold said this week. “To see Tampa as a tremendous hockey market, to see Nashville, the success with Anaheim, San Jose, and now Las Vegas.
“Revenues are up. TV ratings are better. I think the NHL is in great shape. I mean, Vegas — I’m a little jealous, for sure — but how does it get better for the NHL than what’s happening there?
“You can’t get a ticket for hockey in Vegas. Amazing.’’