In 1978, the NHL’s Cleveland Barons merged with the Minnestoa North Stars, bringing the total number of teams in the NHL down from 18 to 17. The next year, four teams from the World Hockey Association were added to the league, bringing the number up to 21. For the next twelve seasons, the NHL went on with this odd number and, remarkably, the league did not implode – divisions were set up, schedules somehow still got made, fans saw some great hockey, and nobody ever questioned the legitimacy of the Islanders, Oilers or any other team’s championships during that era. The league carried on as usual, blissfully unaware that the way it was set up was a direct insult to the very laws of mathematics.
Or so you would think, reading any of the news about possible expansion to Seattle these days. Many articles written on the subject have mentioned that an expansion to Seattle would require the addition of a second new franchise as well, in order to keep the number of teams even. Bleacher Report, perhaps the most trustworthy of all websites that feature both sports analysis and lists of the sexiest WWE Divas, went as far as to say that “With 30 teams currently in the league, expansion would need to occur in pairs.” But while it’s certainly fun to speculate about additional cities entering the league – especially for people in potential NHL destinations like Quebec, Portland, Toronto, or Kansas City – it’s really a not a requirement at all. The NHL has functioned with an odd number of teams before and could do so again.
Perhaps you are thinking that sure, that was all well in good in the 80s, when there were only 21 teams, and this made the impact of one oddball was somehow different. But the NHL also had an odd number of teams as recently as 1998, when it added the Nashville Predators to rousing cheers of “Hockey? What’s that?” throughout the state of Tennessee. And aside from a few confused Preds fans wondering how you score a touchdown in this newfangled sport, things went along just fine. Sure, the league added another team the very next year to even things out again, but they didn’t have to (other than perhaps for purposes of keeping Steve Staios in the league a bit longer). And actually, that’s sort of encouraging in its own way, as it shows that if there were a second candidate for expansion, we wouldn’t necessarily need to wait for them to be ready. Seattle could get started right away, while the second franchise could join the league a few years later.
This situation isn’t unique to the NHL, either. From 1999 until 2002, the NFL played with 31 teams (exactly the same number the NHL would have if it added a team here). And for the NBA, a league which is quite similar to the NHL in terms of schedule and divisional structure, having an odd number of teams in the league is fairly normal. The NBA went 24 consecutive years with an uneven number of teams, from 1980 all the way to 2004, even while adding six new teams to the league. Nobody ever said “Oh, sorry Miami, you seem like a good city for a franchise, and I bet we could make a lot of money here, but we’re really trying to get a nice, even 26 teams right now.” Both of those leagues survived – thrived, actually – because having an odd or even number of teams in a sports league is a supremely easy obstacle to overcome, and conference balance is much less of a concern that generating big piles of cash.
There are significant obstacles to getting an NHL team here – finding an owner and a place for the team to play are highest among them. But locating a second market to enter the league at the same time as us isn’t one of them.