NHL is hoping its future will be on rise in Sun Belt

ST. PAUL, MINN. — ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The National Hockey League wades deeper into the Sun Belt next season with teams in South Florida, Anaheim, Calif., and, now, Dallas. As those teams join the first-year Tampa Bay Lightning and longstanding Los Angeles Kings, the NHL sees an opportunity to improve more than the suntans of its players and the golf games of its executives.

"In the case of Anaheim and Miami, it's given the NHL the opportunity to have two of the great marketing people in the world in our ownership group," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said, referring to Walt Disney Co., which owns the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Wayne Huizenga, founder and CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. and owner of the yet-unnamed South Florida franchise.


"Dallas came about because a team with trouble in its market explored its alternatives."

That team, of course, is the North Stars, and short-term owner Norman Green explored his options all the way to the oil fields of Texas and decided to yank the Stars from Minnesota after this, its 26th NHL season.


Back in 1967, when the Kings joined the NHL in the first wave of expansion, people questioned whether hockey could be a success in sunny Los Angeles.

"There are 500,000 transplanted Canadians in the Los Angeles area alone," then-owner Jack Kent Cooke boasted at the time. When an average of just 8,037 fans showed up for the first season, Cooke was asked what happened to the Canadians. "I figured out why they left Canada . . . they hate hockey," he said.

Cooke later sold the Kings to Dr. Jerry Buss, owner of the NBA Los Angeles Lakers. Neither of them was able to generate much enthusiasm for hockey so close to the beaches of Southern California. Bruce McNall, who invested in the Kings in '86, became the sole owner in 1988, and attendance soared.

One of the first things McNall did as an owner was to buy Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player the NHL has ever known, and two of his Edmonton teammates, sending two players, three first-round draft picks and $15 million to the Oilers. It was a bargain.

With a superstar on ice, the Kings' average attendance climbed to 14,875 during the 1988-89 season and reached 16,005 last season, capacity at the Great Western Forum. No one is sure what to expect when Gretzky retires.

McNall, by the way, became chairman of the NHL Board of Governors after just four seasons in the league. He's also generally believed to be coordinator of the deal last fall that kept Green from moving to Anaheim in order to bring Disney into the league and bring himself $25 million in territorial fees -- the price for Anaheim to play in his back yard. The governors then gave Green absolute permission to move.

McNall refused repeated requests for an interview.

Bettman said, "There are some great markets throughout the country that have not previously had NHL hockey. That's why it )) makes sense for new NHL teams to go there.


"I believe hockey in the Sun Belt is more popular than it gets credit for. There has been a tremendous response in Miami, Anaheim and Dallas, and Tampa Bay has had a warm welcome as well."

Tampa, Fla., has accepted the expansion Lightning, but it would be difficult to say the community has embraced the game played mainly up north. Attendance has averaged nearly 9,900 fans at Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds, a building where capacity is about 10,400.

Earlier this week, however, a deal fell apart to build the Lightning a new arena next to Tampa Stadium, where the NFL Buccaneers play.

Sun Belt hockey has not been an unqualified success for the NHL.

The Atlanta Flames joined the NHL in 1972 but were sold to Nelson Skalbania and a group of Calgary businessmen -- including Green -- in '80.

Attendance in Atlanta started at 12,516 and swelled to 14,162 in the Flames' second season but gradually began to decline until it barely topped 10,000 when it was sold.