Johnston: Expansion looms large at NHL meetings

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The titans of the hockey industry have arrived here not with storm clouds to weather, but a direction to course.

These are extremely heady times for the NHL’s board of governors. Gone are significant front-burner issues that dominated this annual gathering in recent years — namely, collective bargaining and the national Canadian TV rights negotiations — and here is a league that is on a more solid financial footing than ever before.

Now, as the most powerful men in the game sit down together Monday and Tuesday at the Boca Beach Club, this is a time for reflection.

And for planning.

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Without question, the largest issue hanging over the proceedings is expansion. A formal process isn’t expected to be launched this week, according to a source, but commissioner Gary Bettman will provide an update on where things are at.

There is a varying level of interest from prospective owners in Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec and the Greater Toronto Area, among others.

It is only a matter of time before the 30 owners welcome one or two new members. The NHL wants to be cautious in how and where it grows, but there are undoubtedly some on the board that are anxious to rake in their share of expansion fees that could be in excess of $400-million per franchise.

Publicly, Bettman has tried to downplay discussion about the seeming inevitability of a 32-team league.

“Even if we decided tomorrow, it wouldn’t happen for two or three years,” he said last month.

“It’s not a formulaic thing,” he added. “There are lots of other things that we’re doing to continue to grow the game. … There’s no effort crying out for immediate expansion but we are getting expressions of interest.”

The presence of Quebecor CEO Pierre Dion at the meetings in Boca Raton might fuel some speculation about Quebec City’s hopes to reclaim a team, but his attendance is said to be purely about providing an update on TVA’s French coverage — similar to what Keith Pelley and Scott Moore did on behalf of Rogers at September’s BOG.

The new arena being built there is well on its way to completion — Bettman recently admitted to seeing its progress via webcam — but fans in Quebec might have to wait beyond the next round of expansion.

Las Vegas and Seattle hold considerable appeal because they would help balance out the number of teams in each conference.

“Eastern expansion, at this point, would probably have more issues to deal with than a Western expansion simply because we’re already out of balance,” Bettman said in November. “I’m not sure that anybody would want to see that get worse.”

Among the other important topics up for discussion by the board is the salary cap. The plunging Canadian dollar has left some GMs fearing that the upper level will drop from its current position of $69-million, but Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly are expected to announce projections for an increase above $70-million in 2015-16.

An update will also be provided on the proposed sale of a majority stake in the Arizona Coyotes to Philadelphia hedge-fund manager Andrew Barroway.

While participation in the 2018 Olympics isn’t on the formal agenda, it could be touched on as part of a larger discussion on the future of international competition. The final details of the 2016 World Cup are currently being nailed down — expect an official event announcement in January — and will be shared with the governors here.

Among those is a plan to field a European all-star team and “Young Guns” team alongside the top six hockey nations, as first reported by Sportsnet last month.

That tournament should be a significant revenue generator, with one source saying that profits are being targeted at $100-million. When you couple that with the possibility of massive expansion fees in the near future, the NHL’s financial picture should only improve from here.

Full speed ahead.

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