Bettman taking it slow with NHL expansion

Hockey analyst John Shannon joined Tim & Sid to discuss the possibility of NHL expansion and why he thinks in the short-term it is highly unlikely.

For those interested in the undeniable truth, we offer this: The NHL is absolutely, positively planning to pursue expansion in the years ahead.

Of course, that should barely register as news at this point. Anyone paying close attention to the way commissioner Gary Bettman has approached the topic publicly over the last year or so could probably have deduced as much on their own.

The prevailing attitude coming out of the league office is open-mindedness. If you are a prospective team owner from any city you’ll find an audience on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, but you won’t be promised very much.

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Give us your pitch, let’s stay in touch. That sort of thing.

Now, perhaps more than at any other time in his tenure, Bettman can afford to be patient. The commissioner is presiding over a business that is generating record revenues and doesn’t currently have any ownership fires to put out. He even found time to take some vacation recently.

Compare that with last summer, when he spent the “off-season” overseeing the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. Those were three tricky transactions for a variety of reasons. The NHL had even gone significantly down the road with an ownership group in Seattle to ensure that it had a fallback plan if the Coyotes deal went off the rails.

All of which brings us back to expansion, a hot-button topic that set Twitter afire on Wednesday after Vancouver Province columnist Tony Gallagher wrote that the NHL adding a team in Las Vegas was a “done deal.” Howard Bloom of Sports Business News added even more fuel with a claim that Quebec City, Toronto and Seattle would also be getting new franchises by 2017.

The response from the league to those reports?

Well, truthfully, there was a few chuckles behind the scenes at this being billed as the big news of the day. High-level sources insisted that absolutely nothing is afoot and took issue with the veracity of the claims.

However, what you didn’t — and won’t — see is a strongly worded denial from Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly. There’s a simple reason for this: Expansion is on the horizon, it’s just not anywhere near as settled or fixed as has been suggested. There are still a lot of moving parts.

The allure behind expanding the league for the first time since 2000 is pretty obvious. Not only would it generate significant expansion fees, but that money wouldn’t be considered hockey-related revenue and therefore wouldn’t have to be shared with the players.

The 30 existing owners could simply split it amongst themselves.

As a side benefit, expansion would offer the NHL a chance to rebalance its conferences — there are currently 16 teams in the East and 14 out West — by simply creating two new franchises. (One source indicated that awarding four teams in the next round of expansion isn’t out of the question).

What needs to be stressed here is the importance of timing.

Bettman’s tenure with the NHL is approaching a quarter of a century and he’s dealt with more than his share of unstable franchises during that period. The last thing he needs to do is create more problems, especially from those that are being constructed from scratch.

Consider everything that goes into running a successful sports operation: A solid ownership setup and suitable arena to play in is arguably higher on the list of must-haves than a city full of passionate, engaged hockey fans.

If you don’t have a good owner or arena, the risk of failure increases dramatically.

There is no doubt in my mind that the NHL would be willing to put a team in Seattle tomorrow if it had somewhere to play. It was pretty telling that Bettman and Daly met privately with mayor Ed Murray during the playoffs to try and urge him to get an arena built. As it currently stands, the city wants to wait for a NBA franchise to be awarded first.

What if that never happens?

The NHL must also wait and see how the cards fall in Las Vegas, where ground was broken on a new arena project earlier this year. Should that get completed, and a suitable ownership group emerge, it’s a definite possibility. But it’s not written in stone just yet.

Without question, the most prepared city among expansion candidates is Quebec, where the structure of the new Colisee has already been built and the arena project is set to be completed over the next year.

Bettman was reminded of that during his annual state of the league address at the Stanley Cup final.

“There is (a building getting built),” he acknowledged. “That would cause us to have yet another team in the East. I’m not even sure how we deal with it. 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.

“I don’t think this is something you do on a piecemeal basis.”

Right now the league’s top decision-makers are content to sit back and wait.

Expansion is coming eventually, of that there is no doubt, but formal commitments won’t be made until the NHL is certain that it’s expanding to the right places.

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