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Hockey Duhatschek: NHL expansion process separates real bidders from wannabes

Quebec City's NHL expansion hopes received another major boost Tuesday when the league confirmed in an entertainingly worded press release that it was one of only two bids for an expansion team submitted before the formal deadline.

You remember how that played out, right? Back in June – coming out of the semi-annual board of governors meeting – the league established a firm plan and schedule for the bidding process.

The goal was to eliminate the tire-kickers – all the expansion wannabes that had expressed some vague interest in landing an NHL team.

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By setting a narrow window for formal applications, the NHL was able to weed out candidates who'd made a lot of noise over the past decade, but didn't have a viable plan in place.

In all, 16 different groups requested expansion applications from the NHL. In the end, only two submitted bids. One was from William Foley, an entrepreneur who'd previously conducted a season-ticket campaign for Las Vegas with the league's blessing.

The second was from Quebecor Inc., which has an arena nearing completion and the financial clout of a multi-media empire behind the bid.

Normally, most official NHL statements include a lot of boilerplate language that says very little. But when the league sent out an announcement to confirm that applications had been received from the Vegas and Quebec groups, there was actually some meat on the bone.

They must have caught commissioner Gary Bettman on a good day. It's a good bet, too, that he'd grown tired of hearing lofty rhetoric and wanted to see which cities were committed enough to actually write a cheque. It cost $10-million just to submit an application, $2-million of which is non-refundable.

Bettman indicated previously that the league wouldn't be interested in adding a new team for an expansion fee of less than $500-million (all figures U.S.). All expansion revenues accrue to the owners; the fees are not part of the revenue teams share with players under the collective agreement.

Seattle had frequently shown interest in NHL expansion, and it would provide geographic balance, but no bidders stepped up. The deadline also passed without a viable consortium from the Greater Toronto Area coaxing the league into adding a second team in what might be the world's largest underserved hockey market.

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"Our purpose, in initiating the expansion process in the manner we did, was not only to explore the possibility of admitting new members to the NHL," began the league statement, "but also, at the outset, to set realistic guideposts to distinguish between bona fide expressions of interest [i.e., those which have at least substantial ownership capabilities and an arena or the realistic possibility of an arena] and those indications of potential interest which were, at best, merely hopes or aspirations. Apparently, only Mr. Foley and Quebecor have the confidence in their ability to secure an arena and suitable ownership capability to move forward with this process."

Isn't that great stuff? I particularly love how they have eliminated any groups who were "at best" merely hopeful or aspirational.

Bettman has maintained that while the league is prepared to explore expansion, it doesn't mean it will necessarily go forward. However, when he last addressed the topic back in June, he wouldn't rule out a candidate just because it would upset the east-west balance. That, too, was music to Quebecor ears, because if successful, it would saddle the league with 17 teams in the Eastern time zone.

When the NHL last realigned, the commitment was only for three years. It was thought that the possibility of further change was left open merely to see how the then-ongoing Arizona Coyotes saga played out.

But now, it could also give way to a radical realignment with, among other things, the possibility of eight four-team divisions, the model used by the National Football League. Under that scenario, you could actually create two Canadian divisions – Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in the West; Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City in the East.

The two expansion applications will now be forwarded to the NHL's executive committee for review. At minimum, there will be two more stages of document submission, perhaps more. Eventually, if both pass the vetting process, the league could grow to 32 teams as early as the 2017-18 season, which would also coincide with the NHL's 100th anniversary. Nothing would make that the celebration more satisfying than returning an eighth Canadian team to Quebec City.

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