PEBBLE BEACH — Gary Bettman was his typical non-committed self when the topic of expansion was raised here on Day 2 of the Board of Governors meetings. But there are a few things we know to be true:
• There is a new rink on the way up in Quebec City.
• There are aspirations for a new building in Seattle, and potential owner/operator Chris Hansen is in dire need of an anchor tenant around which the project can commence.
• The NHL is imbalanced with 32 teams. And lastly, NHL owners really like expansion fees.
“We’re getting lots of expressions of interest and no decisions have been made to do anything other than listen,” Bettman said. “So we haven’t embarked on a formal expansion process, but when people want to talk to us, we listen.”
There was at least one group seen at the Inns at Spanish Bay that was suspected to be schmoozing owners for insight on how best to approach the process of becoming one of them. Bettman is always very closed-mouth on expansion, but was grilled on the topic by reporters Tuesday.
“When there’s an expression of interest, you look at three factors predominately, showstoppers so to speak,” he explained. “You want to understand the market and can it support NHL hockey? Would it be a good addition to the league? Two, you’ve got to have an arena and three, and perhaps most important, it comes down to ownership.”
He then took the opportunity to send some friendly fire back at reporters pressing him on the topic.
“My, my,” Bettman said, with some sarcasm, “how far we have come since the summer when all the articles and speculation was about all these franchises that were supposedly in trouble which we never believed were? We sold three franchises in six weeks. We have strong ownership, the franchises have never been stronger.
“So we went from relocation, in your view, and distress to now we should be expanding. Everybody needs to slow down. We don’t operate like that. Everything in due course.”
Both Bettman and his right-hand man, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, took time to send some love the way of the NHLPA. After an acrimonious 2012, the Year 2013 is ending on a much more harmonious note.
“Our on-going relationship with the players association is more regular and uniform that it has been in my memory,” Daly said. “We deal with them on all the issues associated with the game. We work through issues. Sometimes we don’t always agree — surprise, surprise. I think we have a strong working foundation and hopefully that will continue improve in time.”
“There is stability now in the union and that is a positive,” Bettman added “Not just for the players and the union, that’s a positive for us because you can’t build a strong working relationship based on trust when the cast of characters is changing every few months. So the strength and stability of the union, I think, is important as we try to accomplish the things we want to do moving forward.”
As reported on sportsnet.ca last week, the new hybrid icing is being found to be less impactful than people thought it would be.
“The one question always is, is there more icings in a game?” said director of officiating Stephen Walkom, who presented to the governors on Tuesday. “There aren’t. There’s about one more icing every 9-10 games. That’s it.
“The learning curve for the hybrid has been great. The players are getting it, the officials are getting it, and in a lot of games you don’t even notice it.”
That means the virtually the same amount of stoppages, but without the annual serious injuries that used to occur.
The Winnipeg Free Press was first to report that the league will be holding a Heritage Classic in Winnipeg in 2016. Bettman tried to put the brakes on that announcement here, but it seems the cat’s out of the bag.
“We had a discussion with (Jets owner) Mark Chipman where we said we’d like to have an outdoor game in Winnipeg, a Heritage Classic. Mark said that’s great. We said we’re not ready to make any announcements, and what is your preference on dates? He gave us a preference of ’16, but there’s no formal agreement, announcement or anything else.
“It’s still a work of progress, but at some point in the next few years, perhaps ’16, perhaps not, we’ll have an outdoor game in Winnipeg.”
The Edmonton Oilers, like most teams, were very pleased to hear from Bettman that the cap should rise nearly 12 percent to near the $71 million mark next season.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ new contract kicks in next season, making him the third Oilers forward with a $6 million cap hit, alongside Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Defenceman Justin Schultz also becomes an RFA, and the Oilers roster will need some improvement on the free agent front.
“There’s always speculation (the cap) might go up and that probably was a little bit in our thoughts,” said president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe. “But it was mostly about locking them up and not worrying about it. Just wanted the fans to know they would be there and we could focus on other parts of the team.’’