Hockey has grown substantially in the United States over the past couple of decades, to the point where in nearly every state, there is some high level hockey to enjoy as a fan. Not all major metropolitan areas enjoy this, but at least on the state by state level, its very close.
But despite these advancements, there are some very notable places without high quality hockey.
First off, some basic definitions: The United States government has different levels of designated census areas to consider. These are areas with common economic, social, media and even scholastic ties. A simple example would be to consider a major city, with its nearby suburbs or bedroom communities. For example, Los Angeles is really just a city of 3.8 million people, but its growth has helped boom neighbouring cities like Anaheim, Long Beach, and Riverside. Los Angeles has a defined metropolitan area, but with Riverside (city population of 304k, metro population of 1.5m, dubbed the "Inland Empire"), it combines to form a Combined Statistical Area, an area with more than one major hub, but closely related. San Jose and San Francisco provide another example, as do Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia in Washington.
The definitions aren't always exact... but just think of it in terms of 'greater region' and you've got the gist of it. The definitions work the other way as well: there are micropolitan statistical areas for smaller centres, while rural areas are defined by counties.
The largest metropolis in the USA without a NHL franchise is Houston, at just over 6 million people. It is the ninth largest population area in the United States, and the largest without a team in every one of the four major professional sports leagues. They do have an AHL franchise, the Houston Aeros, who have been very successful, using a moniker that was used in the old World Hockey Association, a team that once featured Gordie Howe with his two sons, Marty and Mark.
The second largest metropolis without a NHL team? Well, that now belongs to Atlanta at 5.6m. With now two failed big league franchises (and Houston realistically with one, as the WHA was a legitimate top professional circuit), Atlanta hockey fans are now facing a tough new reality. The only high level hockey option in the area are the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL, located in the suburbs. Over the past twenty years, amateur hockey has grown quite noticeably in Georgia, but there is reason to be concerned about its immediate future without the flagship franchise around as a promotional tool.
Beyond Houston and Atlanta, we get to a notably smaller range of cities: Seattle is a major market that is completely ignored by pro hockey, settling for two major junior franchises. There's interest both from locals and the NHL in the market at this time, but that relationship is in the formative stages by the sounds of things. Cleveland and Cincinatti were ignored, probably on purpose by the NHL, in favour of Columbus, a slightly smaller market in Ohio but one without any major league competition. Likewise, Raleigh was chosen over Charlotte to represent the Carolinas, and it appears to have been a wise choice. Sacramento is a NBA town (well, barely, the Kings almost moved recently), while San Diego is an interesting idea if nothing else. Orlando has the NBA as well, and is very close to Tampa Bay, but you wonder why there isn't any notable hockey there at all currently. Portland also has the NBA, and there has been some support for a NHL team there in the past but that seems to have faded in recent years.
|Minor Hky Teams
|Amateur Hockey Rank
|Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News
|4 (1 AHL, 3 NCAA)
|2 (1 AHL, 1 USHL)
|5 (2 AHL, 3 NCAA)
|5 (1 AHL, 4 NCAA)
Las Vegas has been discussed in the past as a 'who will be the first league to go there' scenario, as it is now clearly the largest US market without a major pro franchise. Austin is booming as well, and would present a unique opportunity. The rest of the list includes one former NHL city in Hartford, and a bunch of cities with marginal benefit based on the current makeup of the NHL and smaller market size. Its notable that I show all the way down to Knoxville for this reason: up until now, these were all larger markets than Edmonton's recorded population in 2006 (though it is surely higher than at least Knoxville at the moment), which was the smallest market in the NHL. For reference, the smallest US major league town is of course Green Bay, WI, with a population of only 306,241. Beyond that special case of the NFL's legendary Packers, the smallest was New Orleans, which lost 10% of its population between 1990 and 2010 largely as a result of Hurricane Katrina, with two major league franchises for a metro area of over 1.21m. The smallest American NHL markets are Buffalo and Nashville, both over the 1.6m barrier, and Raleigh at 1.74m is the only other American market below 2m in population.
Things are definitely different in Canada, where the league can find a way to justify moving a team from the huge Atlanta to tiny Winnipeg, a city of around 700k. The four smallest markets in the NHL are all Canadian now, and Metro Vancouver, as big as it seems to Canadians, is only larger than 4 American markets (Columbus being the 4th). There is something to be said about hockey culture and NHL success... and the NHL is preparing to test that theory in a big way with the move to Winnipeg, a city in the third tier of Canadian market size with Quebec and Hamilton.
Places with Few Options
There are seven NHL markets with no other (economy) options for the hockey fan:
- Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV (pop. 8572971)
- San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, CA (pop. 7468390)
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL (pop. 5564365)
- Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ (pop. 4192887)
- Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL (pop. 2783243)
- Raleigh-Durham-Cary, NC (pop. 1749525)
- Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Columbina, TN (pop. 1670890)
Yes, there is no notable hockey for fans in Baltimore, which seems to me to be quite odd. Baltimore is a former WHA market, but has fallen off the map completely in the hockey world. None of the schools in this area, the fourth largest population base in the USA, have joined the NCAA, and no mid to lower tier professional circuit has decided to set up shop in this area, either. Its curious, to say the least. Hockey culture plays a role for the other markets, but so does viability: California and Arizona are a long ways away from NCAA hockey and only have a couple of minor league options to choose from in general. Florida's minor league circuit exists in smaller markets, and stays away from the big cities.
Meanwhile, there are three whole states without any notable hockey other than local leagues and ACHA college hockey to watch:
- Montana - AH Rank #10 (pop. 989415)
- Wyoming - AH Rank #12 (pop. 563626)
- Hawaii - AH Rank #50 (pop. 1360301)
As said before, not much can be done about Hawaii... but Montana and Wyoming hopefully will get local teams to cheer on in notable circuits soon. They both lack population and are a bit distant for a lot of leagues, but I can't imagine why the NCAA wouldn't accept a collegiate team, and the NAHL and even CHL are close by for options at the junior and professional levels. For Montana, there is even the possibility of joining the WHL circuit, with cities like Missoula, Helena and Great Falls all in decent travel distance to other markets. Considering the strong hockey culture in these states, you'd think it'd be worth looking into.
Hockey has hit a lot of new places in the USA in the past twenty years... but there's still a lot of uncharted territory out there.