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Gary Bettman, center, chosen as the first commissioner of the NHL, is flanked by Bruce McNall, left, chairman of the board of the NHL, and Gil Stein, acting NHL president on Dec 11, 1992. (Bruce Bennet/The Associated Press)
Gary Bettman, center, chosen as the first commissioner of the NHL, is flanked by Bruce McNall, left, chairman of the board of the NHL, and Gil Stein, acting NHL president on Dec 11, 1992. (Bruce Bennet/The Associated Press)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Happy Anniversary Gary Bettman Add to ...

“The sport itself has changed,” said McNall. “A team that wins it (the Kings) basically has a bunch of grinders. It comes down to executing that style – and then having a good goaltender. Nobody wants to stand out. Not even Gretzky wanted to. He was almost embarrassed that he was getting so much attention.

“It doesn’t lend itself to the personalities everybody wants to see – whether it’s good guys or bad guys or characters. So I think it’s a problem ... You’d rather have Kobe (Bryant) or some guy with tattoos on his neck.”

REASONABLE STABILITY

If Bettman was talking about anything these days, it would likely be the ongoing struggles to find a new owner for the Phoenix Coyotes. Greg Jamison’s deal with Glendale city council officially fell apart at midnight Thursday night and though he expressed hope that something could eventually still be cobbled together, likely his best last chance to salvage the sale expired at the witching hour. Bettman’s official position on expansion or relocation doesn’t ever change much. Publicly, he’s been singing from the same essential playbook for years now: Until such time as the NHL can stabilize its current 30 franchises in their current locations, it isn’t looking to grow any further.

The league hasn’t added any new teams since the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild entered the fold back in the 2000-01 season, culminating a decade of wildly ambitious growth that also saw teams added in Atlanta, Nashville, Anaheim, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose. Additionally, franchises were transferred from Hartford to Carolina, Winnipeg to Phoenix and Quebec to Colorado, all in a span of 10 years.

On many levels, it was too much too soon and so, after all the cash grabs and ill-advised rush to grow, Bettman put a lid on it. In the past dozen years, there has been one change – Atlanta moving to Winnipeg two years ago. Bettman’s sole operating philosophy was to stabilize franchises where they were – most famously in Phoenix, but he helped out in Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and others during the hard times there.

For years, there were shifting sands undermining half-a-dozen franchises. Now, however, with the continued exception of Phoenix and perhaps Florida, there is reasonable stability in the league – and in some of the trouble spots, new ownership that can apparently weather the coming storms. Primarily, that is why you’re hearing whispers again about a 32-team league and how the NHL will eventually go down that road, but later, not sooner.

Now the NHL went to great lengths this week to dismiss Paul Kelly’s assertions that there were already discussions back in his days as the NHL players association boss (2007-2009) about the wheres and the hows of expansion. However, if you listen closely to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, you don’t hear him say “never” to expansion. You only hear him say “not imminently.”

So if you’re Markham, and trying to make a decision about the value of putting a shovel in the ground without any firm NHL commitment, you need to weigh the odds. You can reasonably expect that somebody in the next five to seven years is going to get the right to pay anywhere from $450 to $600-million to put a second team in Toronto. You can reasonably expect that if you have a state-of-the-art facility, open for business, the odds of you getting picked as the home of the second NHL team increase.

But – and this is a big but – while the league wants to see nice modern digs, what they care about is ownership. Somebody like David Thomson, the majority owner of the Winnipeg Jets, is attractive because of his great wealth and his desire to stay out of the spotlight. The perfect owner, in every way.

In the meantime, Bettman’s caution in holding off any anxious owners that wanted to expand to Toronto already can assure them that his delay will ultimately create a bigger pay day for the NHL down the road, as the appetite for the product in Canada seems to grow daily.

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