Seven of the eight NHL teams that had an average attendance of less than 80% of arena capacity this past NHL season were based in the United States. According to Forbes, the nine least valuable NHL teams call the United States home. eight of the last 10 NHL relocations have involved American NHL teams leaving their cities because of low attendance and financial problems. And as many hockey fans know, American television NHL ratings lag behind U.S. ratings for the NFL, NBA and MLB. Simply put, the NHL has often struggled in the United States compared to this nation’s other major sports leagues.
This past spring, one American NHL team defied all notions of hockey struggling in the United States: the Nashville Predators. The Predators’ playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals showed just how successful hockey can be in America. For Nashville’s home games, fans were clad in gold jerseys and swarmed the streets outside the stadium. Nashville’s unique pre-game traditions included a car smashing event, where fans would donate money to charity for a chance to swing a sledgehammer at a car featuring the rival team’s logo. These pre-game festivities created a unique atmosphere that made Nashville Predators games a city-wide event.
During the game, Nashville continued its traditions with famous national anthem singers, throwing catfish onto the ice and singing unique chants and taunts to let opposing teams know whose stadium they were in. The Predators faithful create one of the loudest and toughest atmospheres for opponents to play in. Nashville had star players to further boost this hype, including G Pekka Rinne, LW James Neal and of course D P.K. Subban. Subban is a unique NHL player who has always grabbed the league’s attention in many ways. It starts with Subban being one of the few black superstars in the NHL, while also being one of the few NHL players to celebrate passionately. Unlike most NHL players, Subban is extremely open with the media and active on social media. He is not afraid to show how much fun he has while on the ice, making him a must-watch player that the fans truly love connecting with.
Commissioner Gary Bettman should be elated to see his southern NHL expansion pay off in such a huge way, and the excitement will only continue to grow. Nashville’s success will resonate across American NHL cities and create new great American NHL markets. These are the next three teams who will replicate the current hype and success of the Nashville Predators:
The Minnesota Wild were founded in 1997 and have only been in the league since 2000, but have a great chance at becoming the next great American hockey market. Minnesota has always been known as the “hockey state” in America due to their record numbers in high school hockey participation, college hockey success and production of American NHL players. But Minnesota’s thirst for hockey has never been put on a national stage. The Wild have reached the conference finals once in their history (2002-2003), meaning they have never reached the Stanley Cup Finals. And despite making the playoffs the past five seasons, Minnesota has won just two games in the second round.
But this team is on the rise. In the past two seasons, the Wild have set franchise records for wins, points and goals. Their deep and talented roster includes LW Zach Parise, C Eric Staal, D Ryan Suter and one of the best goalies in the NHL in G Devan Dubnyk. With a loyal and active fanbase that has ranked top nine in the NHL for the past three seasons along with how important hockey is in the state of Minnesota on all levels, it is easy to see why Minnesota is bound to rise up and become America’s best hockey market.
St. Louis Blues
Blues fans have always been loud and passionate, and as the team has improved recently with deeper playoff runs, the rest of the country is getting exposed to their fanbase. St.Louis ranked seventh in the NHL in average attendance this past season (fifth best among American NHL teams) and filled their arena at an outstanding rate of 104.6%. On the ice, the Blues are edging closer and closer to a Stanley Cup, as they advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2016 and and lost to the eventual Western Conference champion Predators in 2017 in the second round. With young rising superstars such as 27-year-old D Alex Pietrangelo, 26-year-old G Jake Allen and 25-year-old stud RW Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues are likely to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in a few years. The rest of the nation will soon be further exposed to this dangerous team and fantastic hockey market.
It’s kind of sad to see the Flyers on a list of next great NHL markets, because they are already a very good one with plenty of history. Philadelphia ranked sixth in the NHL in average attendance this past season, making them the fourth-most watched American NHL team. Philadelphia ranked seventh in terms of stadium capacity filled with 100.5%, (fifth best among American NHL teams). Also, what if I told you that excluding this past season, Philadelphia has finished top five in NHL attendance for the past nine seasons? A little surprising, right?
And that’s the problem with Philadelphia. It is already one of the very best American hockey markets, but the Flyers’ lack of success on the ice has caused a lot of hockey fans around the country to lose sight of them. The Flyers have either missed the playoffs or lost in the first round for the past five seasons. That sort of stretch without a deep playoff run will render any team irrelevant to the national media and it’s part of the reason that Philadelphia doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
Despite these past shortcomings, change is on the way in Philadelphia. While stars like C Claude Giroux, RW Wayne Simmonds and D Shayne Gostisbehere have been steadily carrying the Flyers, Philadelphia is about get an infusion of young superstar talent that will push the back to the top. First is smooth-skating 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov, the 7th overall draft pick in 2015, who shined in his first full season this past year. And Philadelphia’s next rising star is 2017 second overall pick C Nolan Patrick, who has been pegged by scouts for years to be a top NHL player; many scouts predicted him to go first overall. When Patrick finally debuts for the Flyers, he will give them an exceptional player to build around. As the Flyers organization improves and rises back to national relevance, the city will finally gain its deserved recognition for being a top hockey market.
The NHL is entering a new era in the United States with increased competition for viewership time and with the expansion of the new Vegas Golden Knights. As great as the American dream story of the Nashville Predators seemed, do not get too comfortable. The Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers are all on the clock to rise up and take Nashville’s spot as America’s team.