LAS VEGAS — No matter how many qualifiers and caveats commissioner Gary Bettman attaches to talk of expansion, make no mistake: Wednesday was a seminal moment in the history of the NHL and, perhaps, professional sport in North America.
By formally opening up the expansion process, the commissioner set in motion the machinery that will almost certainly see the NHL become the first of the four major sports leagues to set up shop in Las Vegas likely for the start of the 2017-18 season.
Even if Bettman went out of his way to insist there was nothing to see here. Move along folks.
“It’s not a big day,” the commissioner said after the board of governors opted Wednesday morning to begin accepting bids for expansion teams from around North America until Aug. 10.
“Nothing has happened today other than that we’re going to have a formal application process. It doesn’t mean that we’re expanding. But we’re going to take a deep dive and look at what there is in terms of the interest that’s being expressed.”
Ah, we beg to differ.
This wasn’t just a big day, it was a momentous day because it was the natural first step to doing something the NHL hasn’t done for a decade and a half: Add to its roster of teams.
This was the proverbial first domino falling.
When the last domino topples, it will be absolutely shocking if it does not fall squarely on Las Vegas and, for better or worse, both the league and the city in the desert will never be the same.
One thing we have learned about Bettman over the years is that he does not like surprises and his moves relating to league business are carefully mapped out long before they see the light of day.
The expansion process is no different.
It doesn’t mean that all of Bettman’s plans have turned out to be solid gold though.
He was forced to move the Atlanta Thrashers out of a major American market in 2011 thanks in large part to a brainless ownership group more concerned with infighting than developing a hockey community. Bettman has also fought tooth and nail to keep the Coyotes in Arizona even though it might have been better to have allowed the team to either dissolve or move elsewhere years ago. And you can’t forget the labor stoppages — one of which cost an entire season.
But with Bettman at the helm, the NHL has never been stronger in terms of its economic future and popularity.
It is this popularity, this strength that forms the backdrop for potential expansion.
“I think at this stage the game, and the business of the game, and our franchises and the ownership of our franchises have never been stronger,” Bettman said. “And I suppose that all of the interest that we’ve been getting expressed [in expansion] is a reflection of that.”
Here are the checkmarks that ultimately the board of governors will go through in deciding whether to grow the league.
There is little concern about the level of talent being an issue if a team — or two — is added.
At some point, the league needs to address the imbalance that exists between the Eastern and Western conferences (there are 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West).
And there is not the insignificant matter of an expansion fee that Bettman confirmed Wednesday would be in the $500 million neighborhood, money that does not need to be shared with the players.
On a specific level, Las Vegas has an arena being built by NHL partner AEG (owners of the Los Angeles Kings and operators of arenas around the world) and MGM Resorts International. It is being built to specifics that will accommodate either an NHL or NBA team.
Unlike cities such as Seattle or Toronto, Vegas has the two key elements needed for a successful expansion team: a well-heeled ownership group and a building in which to play.
Another thing about Bettman is that he likes information to be released on the league’s schedule, and he especially does not like folks who speak out of turn or who presume too much.
Bill Foley, the man behind the bid to bring the NHL to the entertainment and gambling capital of the world, was conspicuously absent from Las Vegas this week. He has walked the fine line between drumming up support for his trial season ticket drive — which has topped the 13,200 mark without including potential ticket sales to casinos — and not seeming too eager, too sure that this will end how most people connected to the game believe it will end.
Even Bettman admitted that the response to Foley’s ticket drive has been impressive. And really, did anyone know how it was going to turn out?
“I think a number of people, including Mr. Foley, were curious as to whether or not there was a groundswell from the community itself, not just the businesses, not just the casinos, not just the travel industry, but were there real fans here that would embrace a professional team,” Bettman said.
“I think, based on the drive that he conducted, subject to digging into it a little deeper, but on the surface it looks like there’s a tremendous amount of interest here. Not surprising, but I know there were people who were skeptical.”
That skepticism may be somewhat muted now but it will remain until the team takes the ice and the community continues to support it even through the inevitable growing pains that all expansion teams must endure.
And if there’s a city that knows that there are no sure things, it’s Las Vegas.
One thing we know is that Vegas is a city unlike any other.
It will join the NHL with a kind of national appeal that few other expansion cities have boasted over the years. It will create significant buzz about the league around North America. It will be a happening.
At some point Bettman is going to step away from the job he has held since 1993. Part of his legacy, positive or negative, will be tied to what happened in this city on this day, no matter how much the commissioner insisted that nothing of importance had taken place.