To 32 and be­yond: Seat­tle may not be end of NHL ex­pan­sion

The Catoosa County News - - SPORTS - By Stephen Whyno

The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seat­tle is ap­proved as ex­pected this 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 82- game 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.

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