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Reports: NHL expansion could include Las Vegas, others

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The odds of bringing a big-league franchise to the city of Las Vegas have always seemed long for a lot of reasons, but that may soon change and it might just be the NHL that brings top-level professional sports to Sin City. A recent report suggests that an NHL team coming to Las Vegas isn’t so much a pipe dream as it is a certainty.

Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province reported that commissioner Gary Bettman, who has so often said “we’re not looking to expand” or “we have no plans for expansion” so many times over the last decade, is changing his tune on expansion.

More from the Province:

…Recently the nature of the rhetoric has changed so much that the question is becoming not if, but when [the league will expand].

And then the ultimate question. Will they be able to limit the number of new teams to just two?

Sources close to the situation have indicated Las Vegas is a done deal, the only thing to be determined being which owner will be entitled to proclaim that he brought the first major league sports franchise to Sin City.

“Done deal.” Sounds almost too good to be true and it may be, but there has been movement on the expansion front recently.

UPDATE: NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly denied the report Wednesday morning in comments to TVA Sports:

"[Expansion to Las Vegas is] not in our plans, there is absolutely nothing new in that," he has admitted to TVASports.ca.

And if it were an organization struggling with financial difficulties, as the Florida Panthers, who moved rather in the "Sin City"?

"We have no move in sight, whether in the case of the Panthers, or any other team besides," replied Daly.

Even in light of the league's denial, there's still reason to believe the NHL will have to soon expand and cities like Las Vegas and another rumored candidate Seattle would help expand the league's footprint.

Here’s why it’s not completely outlandish to envision Vegas as a future NHL city. For one, they have two open spots in the Western Conference to even things out and bring some competitive balance. The Eastern Conference currently has 16 teams, while the West has 14. If the NHL expanded to the most long-rumored top candidate of Seattle, that would help even things out. It's definitely not as simple as that, though.

Another barrier for Las Vegas would have been an arena, but that may no longer be an issue. The city has been home to minor-league hockey for years, but now Vegas is in the process of building a new arena however with the aim of bringing either an NHL or NBA team to Vegas.

MGM and AEG, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, are teaming up on the project that broke ground in Las Vegas in May. The new arena is due to open in 2016 and will have 20,000 seats, but a projected capacity of 17,500 for hockey. The company building the arena, ICON, is also building the Edmonton Oilers’ new arena. Kings great Luc Robitaille was on hand at the ground-breaking.

There has long been a desire for Las Vegas to finally get a major league franchise and there are likely more than a few individuals out there that would be willing to bet on Sin City to support a big team.

But here are the issues that make it seem a little less likely. There are other markets like Quebec City or Southern Ontario, that have long been pushing for NHL teams and would appear safer bets than Las Vegas. Putting teams in Seattle and Las Vegas would help even out the Western conference, but there could be an uproar if the NHL goes to two more non-traditional markets while strong Canadian markets exist to make money hand over fist.

A recent report from CBC suggested that Canada could support three more NHL teams. The league undoubtedly knows that they could get a lot out of more Canadian markets and also have that new TV rights deal with Rogers, a company that would no doubt love more Canadian markets.

That’s where a second report comes in regarding expansion. Howard Bloom of SportsBusinessNews.com reported that the NHL will expand by four teams including Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City and Toronto.

Update: In light of Daly's comments, the timeline sure doesn't seem to add up on this one, but it is hardly surprising that the league would come out in strong denial. With expansion "not in the plans" now, it doesn't mean it can't be eventually, and possibly soon.

A $1.4 billion figure for combined expansion fees seems a bit high. The last time the NHL expanded between 1997 and 2000, expansion fees were a reported $80 million, which was a $30 million difference from the previous high. In the 14 years since, you better believe that number is way up from $80 million. Either way, the NHL stands to gain quite the influx of cash if they can expand.

The Winnipeg Jets paid a $60 million relocation fee on top of the reported $170 million True North paid to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers. The relocation fee likely wouldn’t be in the same range as an expansion fee, but it offers a more recent point of reference.

Talk of widespread expansion is a big step away from what commissioner Gary Bettman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in June:

“Right now, we’re not looking to expand. I know Las Vegas is an important city. Whether or not it’s a city for the NHL to put a team in is still to be determined. We have not done any investigating as to whether or not the city could support the NHL or looked at potential ownership groups. If the owners were to approve expansion, we would certainly begin looking more closely at Las Vegas and other potential markets.”

It doesn’t shut the door, but there’s a lot of moving parts to expansion and you'll never hear the NHL commissioner get ahead of himself. It's clear that the gears are in motion on some level, though.

Quebec City is already building an arena that is set to be completed by 2015. The Vegas arena will be ready by 2016. Investors have interest in putting an arena in Markham, Ont., and Hamilton, Ont., has also long been a possible expansion/relocation target.

Seattle meanwhile has yet to break ground on an a new arena, but there has been some movement recently as real estate mogul Victor Coleman is adding some weight to a potential ownership group. He recently met with Chris Hansen, who is working towards bringing an NBA team to Seattle and has promised the city an arena if successful. There were reportedly talks of building the arena if the city secures an NHL team first. Coleman told KING5 News in Seattle that there is a "clear path" to bringing the NHL to the city.

A possible 34-team league by 2017 is a bit concerning, however. Could the international talent pool support it? It seems to be a stretch. Diluting the competition should be a major fear as there are a lot of NHL players right now that are just barely scraping by in a 30-team league. You don’t have to look any further than a lot of the fourth lines in the league. Thirty-two teams may even be a stretch at that point, but adding 50 new players wouldn’t be as straining as trying to add 100.

There are a lot of questions left to be answered and the fact that none of the hockey insiders that are usually on top of the big stories like this have backed up the reports yet certainly takes a little air out of these exciting developments.

Expecting the NHL to expand by 2017 without relocating current teams seems a bit overly-optimistic, but the league is making more money than it ever has and is enjoying growing popularity. More expansion is probably at its most likely since 2000 when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets entered the league and that offers some serious excitement for some possibly hockey-hungry markets.

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