Why Milwaukee is Not an NHL City

As BMO Harris Bradley Center is demolished, we revisit its original hockey ambitions.

At the intersection of State Street and Vel R. Phillips Ave., it is hard to ignore the now-vacant BMO Harris Bradley Center, sitting as the ugly stepchild to the brand new Fiserv Forum. Piece by piece, the former home to the Bucks, Marquette and the Admirals is being dismantled, with its remains given to charity, or thrown away.

In its day, the massive concrete building helped revive Milwaukee’s Downtown and keep the Bucks in the city, and over the years it brought in some top musical acts. But it never lived up to its full potential — because the arena was constructed with the hope of one day being a permanent home to a National Hockey League team.

This story is about why that league never came to Milwaukee.

In 1990, the NHL was a 21-team league looking to expand to increase revenue. After gifting a $90 million arena to the city, philanthropists Lloyd and Jane Pettit had already begun looking into bringing an existing NHL team to Milwaukee. But when those talks soured, the Pettits turned their attention to applying for one of two NHL expansion teams that were going to be added to the league for the 1992 season.

Lloyd Pettit was already a hockey hall-of-famer for his work as the Chicago Blackhawks’ broadcaster, and he was well known and liked within the hockey community. But it was going to take more than personality and legacy to secure a franchise, because of fierce competition from the likes of fellow hall-of-famer Phil Esposito, who was working to get a team in Tampa Bay.

Still, the Pettits believed Milwaukee had as good a chance as any to be awarded the new team. The Bradley Center could hold 17,600 hockey fans, and on the arena’s opening weekend an exhibition game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Blackhawks drew 16,292 people, while the next weekend drew almost 16,000 a night for two Milwaukee Admirals games.

In addition to the new arena, a market research study done by the Gordon S. Black Corp. was showing that Milwaukee was ready for an NHL team. According to the Los Angeles Times, the study concluded, “An NHL franchise will succeed in Milwaukee if Wisconsin Ice Hockey [the group that applied for the franchise] builds a quality, competitive team.”

As promising as this conclusion was, the last part became a crucial sticking point in the eventual withdrawal of the Pettits’ application.

The research also indicated that the entire state of Wisconsin and even Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would support a hockey team in Milwaukee, so for a few games the Admirals were taken on the road, playing in Madison, Green Bay and the Upper Peninsula to create excitement about the possibility of a NHL franchise.

Eleven other cities showed interest in an NHL expansion team, but Milwaukeeans remained confident that they had a legitimate shot at acquiring one of the new teams. Still, as the deadline for submitting the application approached, things began to unravel.

During Milwaukee’s pursuit of an NHL team, the Admirals were the minor league club of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. In November of 1989, the Canucks were scheduled to play back-to-back East Coast road games against the Buffalo Sabres and Quebec City Nordiques. Phil Wittliff went on the road trip in his official capacity as the Admirals’ general manager, but his real mission was to talk with executives in the Sabres’ and Nordiques’ organizations about the possibility of having an NHL team in Milwaukee; the owners of both teams sat on the NHL expansion committee.

“Friday night in Buffalo, they were very cordial, but I didn’t get any information,” recalls Wittliff. “The next night I sat in the office of the Quebec City president watching [the game] on TV and talking, and that is when I found out the [expansion fee] would be $50 million.”

The Pettits were expecting and prepared to pay a $30 million expansion fee to get into the league. They were even ready to pay an extra $5 million to the Blackhawks for indemnification if they had to, but $50 million was a surprisingly large number.

“I remember that Monday we had a meeting, and we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Wittliff said. “We didn’t have anything official from the NHL. In fact, we thought he might have been exaggerating, but it was what it was.”

Despite the potentially high expansion fee, the Petitts kept working toward getting a team to Milwaukee. Lloyd and Jane, along with Wittliff and Joe Tierney, the Pettits’ lawyer, headed to Pittsburgh for the 1990 NHL All-Star Game, schmoozing and politicking with the NHL community.

But in the end, nothing would change the fact that they would have to pay $50 million for a team they felt would be uncompetitive for a long time — the NHL expansion draft rules favored current NHL teams, meaning they could keep almost all of their top talent, leaving slim opportunity to acquire talent for any expansion franchise.

 “We would lose for at least five years,” Wittliff said. “We thought the first year would be a boom. It was something new to do and the second year it would start to regress and if we were still bad in our fifth year we would have a difficult time getting people to come to the game.”

On October 10, 1990, Lloyd Pettit announced he was withdrawing his application for an expansion team.

“Milwaukee is a strong hockey market,” he said at the time. “Milwaukee is a big-league community, which would support an NHL franchise. I still believe that. At no time will Jane and I stop keeping our eyes open if a major-league franchise ever becomes available for sale.”

Although the door was left open for a Milwaukee-based NHL team at the press conference, the idea never really resurfaced, nor did the option of the Pettits bringing on another partner to help pay the $50 million fee.

“For a market this size, I don’t know if there was an outpouring needed to make it successful,” said Mike Wojciechoswki, the Admirals’ director of sales and marketing during the 1990s and the team’s current vice president of business development. “Something would have had to give. I don’t think anyone’s advertising budget was going to increase significantly because there was an NHL team.”

Ultimately, Esposito and Tampa Bay were awarded one team (the Lightning) and Ottawa got the other (the Senators). Tampa Bay would go on to have one winning season in the next ten years, eventually winning a Stanley Cup in 2003. Off the ice, the Lightning ran into financial trouble, switching owners three times in the decade leading up to their Stanley Cup.

The Senators won only ten games in their first season and continued to struggle for the next three seasons, winning a combined total of just 23 games. They would qualify for the playoffs in 1996, but off the ice they also ran into money problems, with the team declaring bankruptcy in 2003.

The new Fiserv Forum has ice and could host an NHL game, but the Bucks have said there are no plans for an NHL team to have a permanent home in the Forum. The Pettits’ foresight about the struggles of an expansion NHL team may have spared Milwaukee a colossal problem, but whatever hope there might have been of having the NHL in Milwaukee is now disappearing piece by piece with the Bradley Center.

The Admirals, by the way, did not make the move from the Bradley Center to the Fiserv Forum; they now play at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.