SPORTS

NHL gives Las Vegas green light to gauge interest in expansion team

12/08/2014 06:09 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST
BOCA RATON, Fla. - The NHL is dipping its toes into the waters of possible expansion to Las Vegas without committing to diving in.

On Monday the board of governors did not object to potential owner Bill Foley holding a season-ticket drive to determine the level of interest in NHL hockey in the Nevada city. Commissioner Gary Bettman cautioned, "please don't make more out of this than it is."

Still, it's another tiny step toward realizing the long-talked-about idea of expansion and one that seemingly puts Las Vegas well ahead of Quebec City and Seattle in the as-yet invisible race for team No. 31.

"The sole purpose here would be to give, in this unique circumstance, Mr. Foley and his colleagues an opportunity to measure the level of interest in the market by conducting a season-ticket drive," Bettman said. "All it's doing is letting him measure for his interest and ours whether or not the market will support a team, at least from that measure alone."

The NHL last expanded from 28 to 30 teams in 2000 by adding the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild.

A season-ticket drive in Las Vegas, however non-binding, is further evidence that the NHL is at the very least intrigued by the unique market that has never hosted a professional team in the major four sports leagues. The CFL lasted one year there in 1994.

"Obviously he's talked to (Foley). Gary says they've done a lot of due diligence," Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Seems like a logical tire-kicking process to me."

What Las Vegas represents for the NHL is the chance to get into a potentially lucrative market before the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball. But before that determination is made — which would require board of governors approval — this ticket drive gives Foley and the league some more evidence of whether it could work.

"I'm assuming if Mr. Foley wants to do this, then he wants to know what the level of interest is," Bettman said, "He's put a lot of time and effort into expressing interest, I think he wants to know whether or not this is something to continue to be worthwhile for him to pursue."

A 20,000-seat arena is under construction on the Las Vegas strip that's set to open in the spring of 2016. With Foley taking this next step, the NHL also has less uncertainty when it comes to ownership.

Those are questions that exist in places like Seattle, and geography hurts Quebec City because there are already 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the West. Pierre Dion of Quebecor, considered the most likely owner of a new incarnation of the Nordiques, was at the board of governors meeting, but Bettman said his presence was to discuss the league's TV arrangement with TVA.

"Pierre Dion and the board did not discuss at all the new building or the team," Bettman said. "There is no measure here. We haven't ranked teams. We haven't ranked markets. There is no process.

"This is purely a request from someone under a unique situation asking for an opportunity to measure interest, and for example, I don't think that would be necessary in Quebec City."

Las Vegas is such a "unique" market because of the service industry there and the transient population. There's also minimal hockey tradition there, although the ECHL's Wranglers have played in Las Vegas since 2003.

Foley, a businessman Forbes reports to be worth $600 million, will run the ticket drive and inform the NHL how he's doing it. Beyond that, Bettman said there's no timeline.

"This is a discrete request to test the market, no more than that," he said. "Nothing else has been decided. Nothing else is being focused on."

Bettman also implied that there's nothing keeping the NHL from adding just one other team instead of two. The fundamental thinking has been two more teams would provide balance, but that's something that could be remedied down the road.

Two other major topics were discussed on the first of two days of meetings at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Those involved the 2015-16 salary cap and the status of the sale of the Arizona Coyotes.

The preliminary estimate for next year's salary cap is US$73 million, a number that Bettman said is dependent on the status of the Canadian dollar. That figure would be accurate if the Canadian dollar continues to be worth 88 cents U.S.

"Obviously if the Canadian dollar rises relative to the U.S. dollar, the cap will go up a little bit," Bettman said. "And if it goes down the Canadian dollar, the cap will go down a little bit, but that's the universe that we're in."

A cap of $73 million would put the floor at roughly $54 million.

Also Monday the board got an update on the sale of 51 per cent of the Coyotes to hedge-fund manager Andrew Barroway. Bettman said the deal was "on track" to happen.

Bettman denied reports that the deal was dead, saying paperwork was finalized late last week.

"It isn't done, and that's the only reason that there wasn't a vote," Bettman said. "We weren't ready from our standpoint in terms of the process that we need to go through."

The NHL, Bettman said, is also not ready to expand. As he has for more than a year, the commissioner said there's "no formal expansion process," even as Foley moves forward with his experiment.

"This is in the conceptual stage," Bettman said. "The concept is that OK, what it means: There's work to be done."

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Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. Pierre Dion's name was misspelled in a previous version.

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