To 32 and be­yond: A team in Seat­tle might not be the end of NHL ex­pan­sion

Centre Daily Times (Sunday) - - Sports - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

The NHL is widely ex­pected to add Seat­tle as its 32nd fran­chise next week, but ex­pan­sion may not be over. Houston, Que­bec City and even Eu­rope stand out as po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tions. No North Amer­i­can pro­fes­sional sports league has gone be­yond 32 teams yet. NHL deputy com­mis­sioner Bill Daly says there is no magic num­ber to stop. He says ex­pan­sion is ap­pro­pri­ate when it makes sense and adds value to the league.

The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seat­tle is ap­proved as ex­pected next week. An even balance be­tween con­fer­ences. A cross-bor­der ri­val for the Van­cou­ver Canucks in the Pa­cific North­west.

Surely the league is done growing for a while?

Maybe not. Two and a half years af­ter vot­ing to add a team in Las Ve­gas in what has been a rous­ing suc­cess, the NHL has plenty of op­tions when it comes to what’s next. No North Amer­i­can pro­fes­sional sports league has stretched past the num­ber of 32, but no one is rul­ing it out for the NHL to get there on this con­ti­nent or be­yond.

“The leagues adapt, they look around and they make judg­ments: Are there mar­kets we would like to go into? Can they sup­port the teams at the rev­enue lev­els that we need? If we ex­pand too much too fast, do we di­lute the tal­ent such that the prod­uct suf­fers? And those are all judg­ment calls in the end,” NHL Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Don Fehr said. “Some leagues and own­ers are more cau­tious than oth­ers. But sooner or later I would like to be­lieve that in the kind of econ­omy we have, all po­ten­tial av­enues will be ex­plored.”

Con­sid­er­ing the suc­cess of the ex­pan­sion Ve­gas Golden Knights, Seat­tle has seemed a no-brainer from the be­gin­ning and no one ex­pects any­thing but ap­proval from the Board of Gov­er­nors on Tues­day. Seat­tle would be­gin play in ei­ther 2020 or 2021.

“Hockey needs to be and wants to be in those re­ally fast-paced cities that are growing and set­ting the mark,” Seat­tle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “Be­cause if we do well here, it'll raise all the boats for all the teams.”

Ve­gas al­ready raised the bar for Seat­tle, which will pay an ex­pan­sion fee of $650 mil­lion – a 30 per­cent in­crease over the $500 mil­lion that cleared the way for Ve­gas to be­gin play last season and far be­yond the $45 mil­lion the San Jose Sharks paid to en­ter the league in 1991 to be­gin a new era of ex­pan­sion.

As soon as the NHL went to 31, get­ting to 32 was in­evitable. As bal­anced as it might seem, it’s not the end.

“Not sure there is any magic about 32,” deputy NHL Com­mis­sioner Bill Daly said. “Ex­pan­sion is ap­pro­pri­ate when a con­vinc­ing case can be made that it will be ben­e­fi­cial and add value to the league as a whole.”

While Daly was re­luc­tant to ad­dress what might be next with the Seat­tle vote pend­ing, Houston, Que­bec City and Toronto have all been touted as pos­si­ble new homes for an NHL team. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany Que­becor ap­plied for an ex­pan­sion team for Que­bec City at the same time as Las Ve­gas. Bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man and new Houston Rockets owner Til­man Fer­titta has al­ready met with Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman.

“Houston’s a big city,” Fehr said. “It’s got a long his­tory with pro­fes­sional sports in North Amer­ica. You would like to think that sooner or later the NHL will have a team there. When and un­der what cir­cum­stances I’m not go­ing to try and pre­dict.”

An­drew Zim­bal­ist, a Smith Col­lege eco­nomic pro­fes­sor who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on sports and busi­ness, said pro­fes­sional leagues op­er­ate much dif­fer­ently from other en­ti­ties when de­mand in­creases. In­stead of mak­ing more of a prod­uct, like a sneaker or beer com­pany might, leagues and teams raise ticket prices or seek new are­nas.

Ex­pan­sion, of course, is an­other way to feed the beast and Zim­bal­ist said a league could get to 40 teams if it is pop­u­lar enough and the rev­enue is spread around cor­rectly.

Any dream of a 40-team NHL would al­most cer­tainly in­volve Eu­ro­pean ex­pan­sion, which Bettman said no one has come up with a vi­able plan for yet. Amid spec­u­la­tion about bas­ing a sin­gle NFL team in London, the NHL would likely need to put a full di­vi­sion in Eu­rope to make any sense. And even that has its ob­sta­cles, with New Jersey Devils cap­tain Andy Greene point­ing to the dras­tic time changes and coach John Hynes un­sure about the long-dis­tance travel as part of an 82game season.

“When you look at the NHL sched­ule with­out go­ing to Eu­rope, it’s a mon­ster,” said Hynes, whose team ended train­ing camp in Switzer­land, played an ex­hi­bi­tion game there and opened the season in Swe­den. “Then you add in Eu­ro­pean travel and time changes and NHLPA days off for re­cov­ery time and it takes its toll.”

For now, the NHL will con­tinue to play games in Eu­rope, ex­plore China and in­crease its reg­u­lar season to 1,312 games – once Seat­tle joins the fray.

JOHN LOCHER AP

The team name is dis­played on a screen dur­ing a 2016 event to un­veil the name of Las Ve­gas’ NHL fran­chise. The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seat­tle is ap­proved as ex­pected next week: an even balance be­tween con­fer­ences, a cross-bor­der ri­val for the Van­cou­ver Canucks in the Pa­cific North­west. Ve­gas al­ready raised the bar for Seat­tle, which will pay an ex­pan­sion fee of $650 mil­lion, a 30 per­cent in­crease over the $500 mil­lion that cleared the way for Ve­gas to be­gin play last season and far be­yond the $45 mil­lion the San Jose Sharks paid to en­ter the league in 1991 to be­gin a new era of ex­pan­sion.

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