Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - As we speak, the city of Las Vegas is entrenched in the exploratory phase of a ticket drive meant to assess its readiness to accept an NHL franchise in the near future.
Coming out of last week's Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton, commissioner Gary Bettman was adamant that expansion and relocation were merely topics discussed and not a dead certainty. There are 30 teams currently, and, if you believe the conspiracy theories that pop up whenever the league decides to realign its divisional format, two more spaces open for clubs in a 14-team Western Conference to balance out a 16-team Eastern Conference.
"There is no formal expansion process," Bettman said. "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 process."
Still, it's not difficult to read between the lines when billionaire businessman Rick Foley practically falls over himself in the last year to get the league's attention and set out and prove that this former desert stop-over for GIs in World War II could field a hockey team at the continent's highest level.
"Mr. Foley, who is investing a considerable amount of time and effort in expressing his interest, wants to have a good idea as to whether or not it's a good idea," Bettman said last Tuesday. "We're interested to know the results, as well ... if he just wants people to sign a piece of paper and say I'm interested, I'm not sure that's the same as somebody taking a deposit."
Reports have surfaced that an expansion fee for Vegas could reach as high as $400 million, a number which seems to have discouraged all talk of a club coming to Seattle. That's absurd, but that's apparently enough of a windfall to remedy any lingering cash flow issues from the 2012-13 season which began in late January due to 3 1/2 months' worth of discord over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
A league seemingly impervious to business decisions which at times have pushed it to the brink of ruin would be stupid not to consider it.
It's amazing that Bettman -- who has presided over three work stoppages and one entire cancelled season under his watch while revenues and a salary cap have seen a net increase in that time -- can simply sit back and let potential owners flock to him without really lifting a finger. But that's where we are.
The National Hockey League, for all its faults and shortcomings and occasional labor battles which truncate season schedules and alienate hard-core fans, has reached a point on the North American sports landscape where starry-eyed civic-minded heroes are lining up to grab a piece of the rock on little more than the promise of an audience with the king.
In Vegas, it's the lure of legitimacy for a city eternally left out of the professional sports picture due to the stain of gambling and the possibilities of regional rivalries with southern California and Phoenix. In Quebec, now approaching 20 years since the Nordiques left for Denver, a whole new arena to replace the famed Le Colisee is being built on nothing more than the hopes of attracting either a wayward franchise or a totally new one.
Let's not forget there's a brand-new arena in Kansas City which was all set to welcome the itinerant Penguins seven years ago before the deal of the century kept the team in Pittsburgh. And then, there's Florida.
"Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate. Period," Bettman said. "It's inconsistent with everything we know and believe, it's inconsistent with everything (owner) Vinnie Viola would be telling me and inconsistent meaning he has no intention of moving the club. He is committed to South Florida."
With an average of well under 9,000 fans per game -- numbers which recently doomed the second NHL club to be placed in Atlanta -- it's laughable that Bettman could keep up that charade for much longer. Just as when he preached patience and confidence for the Thrashers franchise and then allowed it to bolt up to Winnipeg in May of 2011, if the economics of a new locale will strengthen the overall brand, you can bet Bettman -- and by extension the rest of the BOG -- will sign off on the move before the first plastic rats hit the ice in protest.
The devil, as always, is in the details. To wit: "If we're having this conversation in two or three years, it might be a different issue," Bettman said. And why wouldn't Bettman and Viola have this conversation by then? It's taken more than a decade for things to become so pear-shaped, how could it turn around in such a short time frame even with a winner in the building? While the puppets dance around him, sometimes by his own hand and sometimes to the beat of their own drum, Bettman and the NHL can just bide their time.
Expansion and relocation is coming. It's simply more dramatic to hear the hedging and denials first, because that's what makes the final decision so explosive to the public and so ecstatic to the hopeful.
In the meantime, pray for Vegas and Quebec and all points in between don't become too swept up in the sweepstakes because it's all just a game in the end.