Vegas, baby? NHL to accept formal applications for expansion

SHARE Vegas, baby? NHL to accept formal applications for expansion

LAS VEGAS — Jonathan Toews has seen hockey flourish in Nashville and Tampa, and founder in Arizona and Atlanta. He just hopes the NHL has learned its lesson before what now seems to be an inevitable expansion into Las Vegas, perhaps as early as the 2017-18 season.

“I’m not a business expert, I don’t know exactly the ins and the outs of what it takes to make an organization thrive, especially in a non-traditional hockey market,” Toews said. “I just hope that we can, as a league, see through our examples of success and our examples of failure in similar markets and learn from that and make the right decisions. As a hockey player, you love to go on the road, you love to go to exciting cities. So at the end of the day, if they deem it a potentially successful market to play hockey in, then it’d be a lot of fun to come and play here.”

Expansion is not guaranteed, but it sure seems likely. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Wednesday that the league’s board of governors has opened the expansion process, and will take formal applications starting in early July for about a month. Businessman and prospective Las Vegas owner Bill Foley already has secured about 13,200 season-ticket deposits — a number the league is obviously excited about, but wants to take a good, hard look at —and an arena is already being constructed just off the Strip, behind the New York, New York hotel and casino.

Groups in Seattle and Quebec City also have expressed interest, and there’s always talk of a second team in hockey-mad Toronto, or neighboring Hamilton. Portland, Kansas City and even Milwaukee have come up in the past, as well.

Bettman acknowledged that people were skeptical of Las Vegas’ ability to support a professional team, considering the heavy competition for the entertainment dollar, and the significant percentage of locals who work in the gaming and entertainment industry in evenings, when hockey games would be played. But Foley’s ticket drive has opened eyes.

“This is not your typical market,” Bettman said. “And a number of people, including Mr. Foley, were curious as to whether there was a groundswell from the community itself. … Were there real fans here that would embrace a team? Based on the drive he conducted, on the surface, it looks like there’s a tremendous amount of interest here.”

Adding teams in Las Vegas and Seattle would balance out the league’s alignment; there are currently 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference. It also would bring upwards of a billion dollars in revenue, as any expansion fee would start at $500 million. The league last expanded in 2000, when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets began play.

The players, naturally, would be happy to see 46 new NHL roster spots added. But there’s a concern that those jobs would go to unworthy players. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the consensus within the league is that’s not the case.

“I don’t think there’s any concern at all among our managers or ownership group that there’s a lack of talent,” Daly said. “The level of talent in the league has never been stronger. All teams have the ability to have four competitive lines and three defensive pairs. I don’t think talent dilution is a concern at all.”

In other news, the board of governors approved three rules changes for 2015-16. Overtime will now be five minutes of 3-on-3 hockey, which leaves the tantalizing possibility of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on the ice together with all the room they could ever want.

“It’d be exciting,” Toews said. “I think it’s nerve-wracking as a player when there’s so much open space. You don’t want to be the guy who makes the mistake in a situation like that. But I don’t see it being a bad thing as far as deciding a game with players on the ice making things happen. It’ll definitely be exciting for the fans, as well.”

Also, coaches’ challenges will be implemented for instances of offsides and goaltender interference that lead directly to goals. And on all faceoffs other than center-ice draws, the defensive player (the one with his back to his own goalie) will put his stick down first, giving an advantage to the offensive player.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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