BOCA RATON, FLA. — Everybody be cool. Gary Bettman wants you to relax, OK? Relax. He wants you to know that the NHL is not objecting — not approving, no, no, just not objecting — to dipping a toe into the cantilevered pool in the luxury Two Story Sky Villa suite at The Palms, which would be a couple miles from where an expansion team in Las Vegas would play, becoming the first professional sports franchise since the CFL’s Las Vegas Posse to play in the gambling capital of North America.
No big deal, guys. Be cool, I said.
“Please do not make more out of this than there is,” said Bettman, at the close of the first day of the Board of Governors meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. This was after he said, “There is no formal expansion process. There is no vote that was taken today. There is no vote that was contemplated. We don’t have an agreement to sell anybody an expansion franchise.”
The NBA toyed with Vegas a little, holding an All-Star Game there in 2007 that was only slightly marred by the influx of manic party folk, and the occasional shooting. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently wrote that betting on sports should be legalized and formalized, which used to be a terror to professional sports leagues. And in fairness, Thomas Vanek was just caught up in a messy thing involving betting huge sums on football, and he played in Buffalo, Montreal and Minnesota. Times have changed.
And right now the NHL is flush, and that means the next gold rush is on the horizon. Expansion, baby.
And Las Vegas is in the lead. The NHL already has a prospective owner in Bill Foley, who is described as a billionaire (and whom Forbes put at $600 million (U.S.) in 2012) and the Maloof brothers (who own The Palms, and whose stewardship of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings ended in agonizing, ugly fashion). There is a building rising up just off the strip. Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly has spoken with cautious positivity about the market. They’re interested.
As Bettman tried to make clear over and over, this is just a start. This is only a test. Foley will run the season ticket test drive. The league can walk away at any time, and has made no promises. Again: be cool.
But they have not objected. Bettman, when asked if the league could expand by just one team, said, “Considering that we’re out of balance now (between the two conferences), for those concerned about symmetry, you know, if you could play 14 and 16, theoretically, you could play 15 and 16.”
The NHL is extremely cautious when it comes to expansion, or relocation. The league denied Atlanta was moving to Winnipeg until they were really, really moving to Winnipeg. The fact that the league is willing to entertain this test-drive means Las Vegas is clearly in the lead when it comes to expansion. The struggling teams are crying out for the expansion money, and the NHL won’t have to share it with the players, so it’s coming. Unless Vegas ignores Foley’s drive, the NHL will steam towards Vegas. If Chris Hansen didn’t own the arena rights in Seattle, and wasn’t waiting on an NBA team that may never come, then the odds are the NHL would be doing the same in Seattle.
(Somewhere, Jim Balsillie is crumpling up a specially printed Hamilton Predators season ticket and throwing it into a roaring fireplace.)
As for Quebec City, where a gleaming arena is rising out of the ground, there has been no test, no visible interest from the league, nothing but the dampening of expectations. As Bettman put it when asked why this, “This is purely a request from someone under a unique situation asking for an opportunity to measure interest, and for example, I don’t think that would be necessary in Quebec City.”
Or Toronto, he may as well have said. Those potential markets for a team, or a second team, feel more like fail-safes than targets, in case Florida or Carolina or Arizona ever reach breaking points. In Quebec, the prospective owner would be Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who wasn’t a terribly appealing guy before he became a separatist running for the leadership of the Parti Quebecois. In Toronto, there is no second building yet, and no disclosed front-runner in ownership. So, Vegas.
“I’m assuming if Mr. Foley wants to do this, then he wants to know what the level of interest is,” said Bettman. “Because at some point, if we decided to go forward, and if he wanted to do it, he’d want to be sure it would be successful. Again, he’s put a lot of time and effort into expressing interest, I think he wants to know whether or not this is something to continue to be worthwhile for him to pursue.”
Bettman also skipped over the fact that the salary cap is expected to be about $73 million next year, as long as the Canadian dollar doesn’t fall, which would be a relief to some general managers. He said the proposed Arizona Coyotes sale to failed sports franchise purchaser Andrew Barroway remains “on-going and on track,” despite reports to the contrary.
And when talk came to Vegas, he all but laid out the rules of engagement, tense, careful. That’s how you knew it was important. Vegas, maybe. The NHL would like to get rich, while gambling as little as possible.