NHL expansion on its way, but not just yet
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun files)
In an informal survey of various team officials and NHL types conducted by Sun Media on Wednesday regarding a pair of reports that suggested expansion is imminent, the ‘P’ word kept coming up over and over again.
Perhaps that, more than anything else, is an indication of where the league stands right now when it comes to adding franchises in the immediate future, with Toronto, Quebec City, Las Vegas and Seattle all in the conversation.
The expansion issue is a question of “when,” not “if.” In its most basic form, it comes down to simple math for the National Hockey League, both in terms of a) the number of teams in the league; and b) the number of zeros that follow the dollar signs associated with expansion fees.
As long as there are 16 teams in the east and 14 in the west, the expansion chatter just won’t go away. It’s no secret the league would like to see an equal number of teams in each conference, with a 16-16 split being the ideal setup.
And the potential windfall in the form of expansion fees would go directly to the owners and not the players, as cited by the collective bargaining agreement signed last year. Given the possibility of such wads of cash plopping directly into their deep pockets, which owners wouldn’t give the thumbs-up?
But here’s the thing: Right now, as much as league officials admit they have been open to listening to parties interested in acquiring franchises, there simply are too many questions remaining on a handful of fronts for the league to have an official expansion framework in place.
As a result, if you are ready to plunk down a season-tickets deposit for the Quebec Nordiques II, the Toronto Make Me Laffs, the Seattle Shermanators and the Las Vegas One-Armed Bandits — Kansas City has also been mentioned, but would appear to be a longshot — just hang on to your dough for the time being.
The league is going to expand, sure. But when? Nothing is etched in stone. Not right now. Not yet.
“The commissioner (Gary Bettman) 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,”’ Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke told the FAN 590 when the subject of imminent expansion came up on Wednesday morning.
“What I can tell you, 100%, as of this morning, for sure? This isn’t on the agenda right now,”
Leiweke was reacting to a question about a tweet from Howard Bloom of @SportsBizNews late Tuesday night suggesting that the NHL will expand by four teams by 2017, including franchises in Quebec City, Seattle, Las Vegas and, interestingly, a second team in the GTA.
According to the tweet, the league would get a total of $1.4 billion US in expansion fees.
Another report, this one from Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province, indicated that a Vegas franchise is a “done deal,” especially with shovels having gone into the ground on a 20,000-seat arena in Sin City earlier this year. One issue here, among many: There is no owner in place there.
In an email to Sun Media on Wednesday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted that “the reports are lacking foundation. There is nothing new to report on the subject. Nothing has happened.”
That doesn’t mean that the Province and Sports Business Journal Reports won’t come to fruition down the road.
But to put a timetable on it is “premature.” There’s that P-word again.
Earlier this summer, Bettman said that “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.”
In the end, going from 30 to 32 teams would be the perfect step forward. And make no mistake: It will happen. But that doesn’t mean it will completely come to pass via expansion. Keep in mind that relocation might come into play, especially if the franchises in Florida and Arizona continue to bleed money.
In any event, please hold off for now on making plans to attend that potential Leafs-Laffs tilt in 2017.
BRING ON MORE CANADIAN TEAMS: TOEWS
If the love-in between the Jets and Winnipeg is any indication, then Jonathan Toews is all for bringing in more NHL teams to the Great White North.
“I think expanding in Canadian markets — I’ve heard Quebec City thrown around, maybe here in Toronto — I don’t see any downside to that,” Toews told reporters during a Canadian Tire/Hockey Canada event on Wednesday in the GTA.
“I see first and foremost how great it’s been having back a team back in Winnipeg, so I don’t see a downside. I think it would be a great thing. There is a lot of excitement in Winnipeg right now. I think it would be the same in these cities.”
Toews, who has won two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks and a pair of Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, grew up in the Winnipeg area.
As for expansion, Toews does not feel the NHL product would be too watered down by adding franchises.
“As far as the talent pool, I think there are so many great young players, the level of play wouldn’t be dropping off much,” he said.
Toronto, Quebec City, Las Vegas and Seattle have all been part of speculation as potential new homes for possible NHL franchises.
In terms of Sin City, Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo immediately took to Twitter via his alias @trombone1 to quickly suggest that visiting teams coming into Vegas might be suffering when taking the ice after potentially spending a late night in the local casinos.
Said @strombone1: “Gonna be unreal when Las Vegas goes undefeated at home every year... #nhl #expansion”