When the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, many hockey fans and pundits were quick to blame the demise of the team on the fact that it was located in the virtual heart of Dixie, where football and basketball rules on all levels. This actually was not the case, as it was the result of poor management and no help from local government to keep the franchise in the city. But the myth of hockey being unable to thrive in the South was kept alive by the death of the Thrashers.
There are, of course, clear examples of hockey surviving in non-traditional markets: the rise of hockey in California as a result of Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings; the success of both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers; the NCAA holding the 2012 Frozen Four hockey championship in Tampa. Even the fight to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona shows that hockey is wanted in a place where hockey wouldn’t normally be given a second thought.
This brings to mind the thought of where hockey could also thrive in the South. When hockey fans think of expanding the NHL beyond 30 teams, they think of cities in Canada. Kansas City has even been thrown around as a possible expansion site. But there is a city that could house hockey, and it has a strong fanbase already in place: New Orleans. In fact, the Big Easy has been home to hockey in the past.
Between 1997-2002, the New Orleans Brass was the ECHL’s representative in the city. They had the distinction of not only being a hockey team in a place known for football and basketball, but their majority owners were African-American, earning the team a spotlight among black business owners. The team did not disappoint, as they made the playoffs each year, and fans who previously knew nothing of hockey warmed to the sport and the team. But when the former Charlotte Hornets were relocated to the city in 2002 and shared New Orleans Arena with the Brass, hockey couldn’t compete with basketball’s popularity, and the franchise folded.
There are still rabid fans of hockey in the Big Easy, and there are some local hockey clubs in town. But there’s a lot of work to be done if hockey were to return, namely overcoming the problems of the need for an arena and local investors and the specter of basketball vying for fans with a fledgling sports team. On the other hand, there would be the potential to bring more business to a city that desperately needs the positive attention as it struggles to come back, even seven years after Hurricane Katrina.
It’s debatable as to whether the city of New Orleans would be a choice if the NHL should decide to expand. But if the loyal fans of the Brass are any indication, hockey could find a new and very loving home in the South.