Another NHL season begins tonight and Portland is not involved. When the puck drops in Chicago, Portland and the greater US Pacific Northwest will still be a minor-league hockey entity. It was so very close to being so very different.
According to various reports published in The Oregonian, Comcast SportsNet Northwest, and NBC Sports' Pro Hockey Talk, Paul Allen was ready to make a $200 million dollar bid for the struggling Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Portland and the renamed Moda Center, before Phoenix struck an 11th hour arena deal to keep the team in Arizona.
Looking back, Portland barely missed out on its third major pro sports franchise. With an arena, a rich owner, and infrastructure set up for the Trail Blazers, an NHL team could start play in the Rose City tomorrow.
But it didn't happen, and as close as the NHL got, that's as far away as it is on the dawn of the 2013-2014 season. It's a familiar tale: First it was the Penguins that almost snowballed into Portland in the 1990's, before Allen pulled back and the Pens rode Mario Lemieux and last-ditch desperation to remain Pittsburgh.
The NHL has gotten close several times, but it’s never landed here.
The runway is clear and ready. An NHL team in Portland makes more sense today than it ever has before. Besides Portland's arena and deep pockets, the overwhelming success of the Portland Timbers has shown that commercial dollars and community appetite are there to support more pro sports.
Not only have the Timbers been a smashing success at the gate (they've sold out every MLS game in their history – 49 and counting), they're making money through sponsorships that have outpaced initial projections, and TV revenue – Portland is the second-highest rated local market for their MLS team.
It's not just the Timbers Army, who are showing up with regularity at Jeld-Wen Field. While the Army is impressive and iconic in their representation of the Timbers and the city of Portland, they don't make up the thousands waiting for season tickets, or the 15,000 that already fill the rest of Jeld-Wen.
These fans steadily supported a losing product in 2012. Interest in soccer is only growing. In fact, Portland is renowned around MLS and the NBA for fan support.
Interest in basketball is already there, and has been there since the beginning. This is Rip City, and the Trail Blazers have consistently ranked in the top five in attendance figures in the NBA, selling more tickets in 2013 with a losing squad than both LA teams, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston and Toronto.
The Winterhawks, Portland's existing minor-league hockey team, drew sellout crowds for playoff games last year and are consistently pointed to by executives as the model for success in the WHL.
Hockey is the kind of just-outside-the-mainstream sport that Portland adores. This city would lap up the personality of the NHL and its virtually egoless players – not to mention the fact that the extremely exciting sport is experiencing a sort of resurgence.
So the point has been made: The people of Portland would support the NHL. If he's all in, Allen takes care of the corporate, ownership, and monetary angles.
But the best part? The NHL wants and needs to expand.
By drastically realigning their division and conference structure for the new season, the NHL has been left with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference. Two more teams in the west would even things out, and erase plenty of scheduling headaches for Gary Bettman and Co.
The NHL wants a presence in the Pacific Northwest, and the league is eager to create the same kind of Cascadia rivalry that has rocked MLS. Vancouver already has a team. Seattle wants one. So, apparently, does Portland. If there are two expansion teams out there, there are three clear-cut candidates for them.
Quebec City, cruelly stripped of the Nordiques almost 25 years ago, wants back in the game. Quebec has an arena, though not as current as the Rose Garden, and would generate huge support. Still, Canada and the eastern time-zone isn't the NHL's expansion priority, and Quebec had a hard time keeping players and dollars flowing when they had a team.
Seattle has the size, but they don't have the arena and their ownership situation isn't completely clear. Despite it being the glitziest expansion candidate, Seattle may make the least sense.
Portland has it all. Location, arena, support, and money. Allen needs to get it done. It would forever change his somewhat murky legacy in Portland. Allen could go from enigma to statue.
While there are other outside candidates for expansion, and the always-looming possibility that other NHL expansion duds could be relocated, but it looks like a three-horse race. While there is no guarantee that the NHL will expand, it’s the most likely scenario for the league at this point.
There are people who believe a major part of the Rose Garden naming-rights deal was a play for hockey, and with the active Chris McGowen running the Blazers and Moda Center, Allen finally seems ready to jump in. If he jumps, he’ll have a slam-dunk.
As of 2013-2014, there is no NHL team in Portland. Come this time next year, that just might change.