NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spent the better part of the day Tuesday touring an arena under construction on the Las Vegas Strip, shilling for season ticket sales, and posing for pictures with showgirls and the man who wants to bring the first major professional sports franchise to this gambling city.
Then he insisted the NHL has barely given the issue of expansion a second thought.
"We're not in the expansion process and I need to keep making that clear," Bettman said, throwing just a bit of cold water on a ceremony kicking off season ticket sales for a team that does not yet exist.
While Bettman was careful not to commit the NHL to Las Vegas, his presence at prospective owner Bill Foley's kickoff campaign was surely noted far beyond the Las Vegas Strip. And Foley and others seemed confident that once the goal of 10,000 season ticket sales is realized, it won't be long before the NHL comes forward with an expansion franchise for the city.
"We have the arena and we have strong ownership," Foley said. "Now it's our job to convince the NHL that Las Vegas is ready for hockey."
Foley, a billionaire businessman, is teaming with former Sacramento Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof to try and land a NHL team for an arena being built by MGM Grand on the Las Vegas Strip. The arena, which will seat 17,500 for hockey, is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2016.
While the NHL has not committed to expanding beyond its 30 teams, the league's board of governors agreed earlier to Foley's ticket sales plan to explore the Las Vegas market further. Bettman said he attended the ticket sales kickoff event at the MGM Grand as part of the plan to see whether there is a market for hockey in the city.
"I have no promises to make today," Bettman said. "I do wish Bill and the people of Las Vegas good luck in this venture and we will be interested in seeing the results."
Las Vegas has long been mentioned as a possible place for an NHL or NBA franchise, but it wasn't until MGM began construction of its privately financed arena that there was a proper facility to house a team. Still, there are concerns that there is not enough of a fan base in the city of 2 million to support a team, even if tourists are also a strong market for ticket sales.
Bettman sat under a replica of the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign," and posed with showgirls who towered over him with their tall feathered headdresses. Later he answered questions, including one from a journalist from Quebec who wondered why the commissioner had not toured the new arena under construction in Quebec City with hopes of landing a team.
The mayor of Seattle also recently met separately with Bettman and NBA commissioner Adam Silver to express support for teams if a new arena is built in the area.
Bettman said the league's board of governors had not formally taken up the expansion issue, but said league owners are curious about potential possible markets for the NHL. Bettman said he was particularly curious about how big the Las Vegas market would be.
"This is a journey with many stops on the road," Bettman said. "I think you want to know early if this is a dream worth chasing."
Bettman also said he wasn't concerned about putting a team in a city that has legal sports betting, noting that hockey is not nearly as heavily bet as basketball and football.