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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before game one of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before game one of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Duhatschek: NHL shift on expansion thinking came more than a year ago Add to ...

There was a lot of talk Wednesday about NHL expansion and much of it followed the usual pattern. On a slow day in August, there were a number of reports that the NHL would ultimately like to be a 32-team entity, with 16 teams in each conference and, furthermore, that cities such as Seattle and Las Vegas would be the destinations of choice in a perfect world.

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True, but also common knowledge and reported frequently over the past couple of years on multiple platforms, including here.

The NHL then issued the obligatory denials, saying that it is not actively exploring expansion at this time. Also a predictable response.

Nothing did change this week.

The real shift in thinking came more than a year ago – and it should have been evident to anyone paying close attention to commissioner Gary Bettman. No one manages the message or stays on script better than Bettman, and, if you were listening, you became aware that he’d just slightly altered the expansion dialogue.

Before the NHL fought the last lockout with its players, the commissioner parried most expansion questions the same way – it wasn’t in the plans for a lot of reasons, primarily because the NHL wanted to fix its business as it was currently constituted.

Left unspoken - because Bettman doesn’t like to dwell on the negatives – but clearly understood by everybody in the know was the fact that the league had so many financial problem spots that it made no sense to even ponder expansion until the ownership issues in Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey, Florida and elsewhere were settled.

Then, one by one, the fires were put out.

Say what you will about Bettman’s tenure as NHL commissioner but as a CEO of a major corporation, he has done an excellent job of smoothing over most of the league’s troubled waters.

Two years ago, coming out of a nasty spat with the players, fans flocked back to watch the shortened season and were rewarded with a fabulous playoff, the Chicago Blackhawks defeating the Boston Bruins in the final.

Last year was even better on all fronts – financially and in terms of the overall quality of hockey on display.

So now Bettman’s new and slightly modified message is that while there is still no formal expansion plan in the works, the league is in a listening mode and willing to hear proposals from anyone with the financial wherewithal, the right building and, most importantly, the desire to operate in a location that would enhance the NHL’s business model.

The latter point is why the discussion always circles back to Seattle and Las Vegas. Both are major markets, with interesting upsides.

Seattle has long supported junior hockey and it would be a perfect rival for the Vancouver Canucks. The belief is that Las Vegas would work as a market, if only because all the casinos would scoop up the private boxes and luxury seating and pass the tickets on to their best customers. What with the new NHL TV package, if you have enough corporate support, the nightly gate needn’t be extravagant. Seattle and Las Vegas would give you the perfect 32-team mix – four divisions of eight teams.

Last year, at his Stanley Cup press conference, Bettman moved the needle a little bit further, noting that if the league received enough viable expressions of interest about expansion, it might eventually become an agenda item for a future board of governors’ meeting. Rest assured that will eventually happen, likely within the next 24 months, possibly sooner.

The NHL has piggy-backed upon the increasing TV rights available to all major sports leagues. It has made a business that once upon a time bled red ink all over the ledger sheet a far more viable enterprise.

The next step isn’t difficult to predict and it is the same goal that any prosperous business desires – growth.

The only thing left to determine is the timetable. With the NHL’s 100th anniversary coming up in 2017, privately, just about everybody in a senior position with an NHL team believes it’ll happen by then.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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