TORONTO - NHL expansion is likely coming in the near future, though the league hasn't committed to any official plan just yet.
For more than a year, commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL is listening when approached by cities interested in acquiring a team even though there's no formal expansion process underway. Amid reports this week indicating solid plans are in place, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said there's "nothing new to report on this subject."
"Nothing new has happened," Daly said Wednesday in an email.
Status quo doesn't necessarily mean the NHL won't eventually expand to Las Vegas, as the Vancouver Province reported Tuesday was a "done deal." And it doesn't necessarily discount the possibility of adding four teams by 2017, one each in Las Vegas, Seattle and Quebec City and a second in Toronto, as SportsBusinessNews.com reported via Twitter.
Getting to 32 teams sooner rather than later would make sense for a league that moved to unbalanced conferences with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West beginning last season. Las Vegas and Seattle fit geographically.
But the NHL has several hurdles to overcome before awarding franchises, including answering arena and ownership questions.
MGM and AEG are in the process of building a 20,000-seat facility in Las Vegas that could be ready by the spring of 2017, and either UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center or Orleans Arena could be short-term options. But it's still unclear who would own a team in Las Vegas, let alone what could happen to sportsbooks if the NHL is the first major North American professional league to move in there.
Seattle, with its vocal and passionate fanbase, has a less-than-ideal arrangement in the short-term with Key Arena. Getting a new building would be crucial to the NHL going to the Pacific Northwest. Chris Hansen, who tried to buy the NBA's Sacramento Kings to move them to Seattle, and Don Levin, owner of the AHL's Chicago Wolves, could head up an ownership group there.
Communications giant Quebecor would love to resurrect the Quebec City Nordiques, and Quebecor Arena could be done by the fall of 2015. The Canadian dollar is much stronger than it was in the mid-1990s when the Nordiques moved to Denver, and fans have long been clamouring for the return of the NHL.
But Bettman said at the Stanley Cup final in June that he wasn't sure how the NHL would deal with putting another team in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were just moved from the West to the East for the 2013-14 season.
Quebecor did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney is also a key player in Quebec City's efforts to get a team back. His assistant said Wednesday he would not comment on the reports.
If the NHL did choose to cash in on what SportsBusinessNews.com reported would be roughly US$1.4 billion in expansion fees by expanding to 34 teams by the centennial season of 2017-18, a second team in Toronto could play in the Western Conference. The size of the Toronto market has long made it an interesting possibility, whether the expansion team shares Air Canada Centre with the Maple Leafs or has its own arena.
Outgoing MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke cast doubt on the report based on his interaction with Bettman on Wednesday morning.
"The commissioner and I had other business this morning, so we talked for a while and this came up, and I asked him, 'Did I miss a meeting?' And he laughed and said, 'Nope,'" Leiweke said in an interview on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. "This isn't on the agenda right now."
Officially, expansion is not on the agenda . But that doesn't stop the speculation.
"We listen when people say, 'We'd like to come visit you and tell you why we're interested and where we're interested,'" Bettman said in June.
Plenty of cities are interested, including Portland, Hamilton and Kansas City. But even with a new, lucrative Canadian TV deal and growing revenues, the NHL doesn't have to rush into anything.
Expansion is tempting because fees don't count toward hockey-related revenue, which gets split between owners and players. Any expansion fee, which could run in the neighbourhood of $300 million or more, depending on the market, would be money the owners don't have to share.
Getting to 32 teams — 16 in the East and 16 in the West — makes for better playoff math and easier scheduling and would also tie the NHL with the NFL as the leagues with the most teams. Going to 34 would surpass North America's most popular professional sports league.
Any kind of expansion requires approval from the board of governors. The NHL hasn't expanded since 2000, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the league.
With the state of business being pretty good, the league could look to change that in the coming years.
"I think if, in fact, we get to a point where there's enough interest in enough places that it warrants consideration, then the board of governors may well invoke a formal expansion process and we'll look at everything," Bettman said in June.
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