NHL expansion to Toronto, Quebec City ‘most likely’ in next 3 years; NHL denies plan in place

The notion of NHL expansion within the next few years falls somewhere in between “inevitable” and “a foregone conclusion.” When your dramatic realignment plan involves two conferences of eight teams and two conferences of seven teams, one can safely assume that the NHL intends to “make it eight” for the smaller conferences at some point.

Or perhaps the more appropriate term is “make it nine,” considering that expansion is expected to take place in Canada.

One hurdle towards that expansion, at least to the Toronto area, was cleared on Tuesday night when a measure to stop work on the 20,000-seat GTA Centre in Markham, Ont. was narrowly defeated at a city council meeting.

Presenting in support of the arena plan: Paul Kelly, the former executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association. In his comments, he revealed that the NHL had directly discussed expanding to 32 teams when he was head of the NHLPA – and that he suspects Quebec City and Toronto to be the expansion targets.

From Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports, more Kelly:

Kelly added he believes expansion will take place in the next two or three years, "most likely" to Quebec City and Toronto.

"You're not going to wait until the back end of a CBA, when you will be under negotiation again...[Expansion] balances re-alignment; increases revenue streams. It adds $80-100 million US to the [Hockey Related Revenue] pie. … Quebec City had a franchise before and it served the sport well," Kelly said. He also said the NHL considers the Quebec market "underserved."

Kelly's experience with Jim Balsillie's attempted move into the Hamilton market leads him to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs would not be able to stop such a plan. "When I went through it with the NHL, I was told the Maple Leafs would be entitled to financial compensation - maybe over a number of years - but would have no right to block a team."

So maybe NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was right when he said the Leafs had no veto power. (Plus, the new owners for the Leafs might fancy getting the media rights for a second NHL team in the area as a tradeoff.)

The NHL managed to maintain its stranglehold on expansion fees, with the players getting the benefit of increased revenue from fertile new markets. They don’t come more fertile than a second Toronto franchise.

From Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe & Mail:

Yes, expansion is going to be Bettman’s Valentine card to his owners after the 119-day unpleasantness of the lockout, says former NHL Players Association executive director Paul Kelly, who was in Markham last night to stoke the fire for a barn that could host one of Bettman’s new teams.

Kelly says that the league had told him 32 was a magic number, with a southern Ontario franchise as the plum. (Such a franchise could fetch a half billion dollars for owners bruised from four-month lockout.). No one doubts that the right arena, the right partners and a tidy payoff to the Maple Leafs will make this baby sing.

Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com reports that the NHL is denying the existence of an expansion plan, now or when Kelly was the head of the NHLPA. From LeBrun on Wednesday:

"There’s never been a plan to expand to 32 teams," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com Wednesday morning. "Whether we talked conceptually at some point if things are going well whether we could expand to 32, I’m sure we suggested we could, but we certainly never reached the point where that was appropriate when Paul Kelly was executive director of the NHLPA and I’d say we haven’t got there at this point.

"I’d say any sports league aspires to be in a position where expansion is a good idea," added Daly. "But again, it’s got to be the right circumstances."

Again, it’s hard to buy the NHL’s argument that expansion isn’t on the front burner in the next few years when its realignment plan was seemingly designed for the addition of two teams.

But give the League this: There are never any guarantees that “if you build it, the NHL will come.”

That goes for Markham and Quebec City and Seattle, just as it went for Kansas City, currently in its 6th year of yearning for a Sprint Center tenant, hosting NHL exhibition games and acting as way for teams to tease relocation for the betterment of their leases.