I posted an NHL alternate history timeline a little while ago. I’m a big fan of alternate history in general, so when I saw a thread at AlternateHistory.com earlier this week asking how the NHL could have been prevented from expanding outside of the Northeast, my interest was piqued.
Short of being surpassed by another league early on, I think it’s inevitable that the NHL would eventually stretch across the entire continent. There’s too much money to be made from a national TV contract and team owners won’t turn that down out of some kind of solidarity with the Northeast. If it wasn’t about money, Winnipeg and Quebec and Hartford would never have lost their teams.
But I do think there’s a way that the NHL could remain somewhat regional for a little bit longer. It requires a change in direction that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s theoretically possible.
It’s the early 1970s and the NHL has just expanded to Buffalo and Vancouver. For whatever reason, the league decides not to try to compete with the newborn WHA. Maybe it’s been too much stress on the league, expanding from six teams to 14 in just a handful of years. Maybe they don’t see the WHA as a threat (which is odd just a few years removed from seeing the WHL as one).
Whatever the reason, this means that they don’t go into Long Island in an attempt to deny the NYC market to the WHA, and with their expansion partner gone, the Atlanta Flames disappear as well.
The NHL still goes to Kansas City and Landover in 1974. There’s prestige to being in the US capital so they won’t pass up the new arena there and they need another team to balance it out. The Scouts don’t last and move to Denver in 1976.
With their own rink in New York, the WHA has stability there. With the Omni in Atlanta available, the Miami Screaming Eagles move there instead of Philadelphia (and then Vancouver, and then Calgary).
By 1976, the leagues have something of a handshake agreement to not compete with each other for markets, driven mostly by the WHA’s failed attempts to do so everywhere except for Long Island and the NHL’s general lack of interest in the WHA’s locations.
With a stronger WHA, the Cleveland Crusaders (for one) are solvent, so the Gunds keep the Golden Seals in Oakland. Come 1982, the Rockies stay in Colorado rather than unbalancing the New York market.
In 1985, the WHA kind of sandwiches the NHL geographically. It’s anchored in the south, with Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, and Southern California (San Diego). Then they’ve got Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary in the Canadian prairies. Quebec, New England (Hartford), and New York are what’s left of their intrusions into traditional NHL territory, while Cincinnati and Cleveland make Ohio a WHA state.
The NHL, meanwhile, is as follows: Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, California (Oakland), Minnesota, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Vancouver, Colorado (Denver), and Washington (Landover, MD).
Competition for players is taking its toll on both leagues. Both leagues want a big TV contract but can’t get it without the other’s territory. In the WHA, Southern California and New England are barely hanging on, basically propped up to keep the league relevant in Boston and Los Angeles (both of which are a stretch anyway).
Though the late 1980s the two leagues cooperate on interleague exhibitions and all-star games. A four-team “champions tournament” (made up of each league’s conference champions) is scheduled in 1988 and 1989, but both years the Stanley Cup Champions find an excuse for backing out (the NHL refuses to risk their champion losing to someone from the upstart league).
Finally, after years of negotiations and rumors, the two leagues merge in 1992. As part of the merger, the New England Whalers are sold to H. Wayne Huizenga and moved to Miami while the Southern California Mariners are sold to Disney (on the heels of their hit kids movie, “The Mighty Eagles” [in the movie, the team’s benefactor’s name is Eagleston, as Disney wasn’t going to have their team share a name with the WHA’s Long Island Ducks]) and moved to Anaheim.
The 1992 NHL is as follows:
Mighty Eagles of Anaheim
California Golden Seals
Detroit Red Wings
Long Island Ducks
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota North Stars
New York Rangers
St. Louis Blues
Toronto Maple Leafs
Technically, the NHL didn’t expand much, they just merged with a league that did.
I imagine Birmingham, Cincinnati, Quebec, and Winnipeg would be at risk through the 1990s. With Denver and Phoenix already taken, relocation wouldn’t look the same. Who even knows what cities would be building arenas then?
Hamilton might be an option with their then-new arena. Ottawa or Tampa could build an arena, as they did for expansion. East Rutherford is probably out, though, with their arena outdated by then. Nashville and Raleigh are possible landing places by the late 1990s but Columbus won’t be as long as one of Cincinnati or Cleveland survives.