So now, it begins.
After years of deflecting, dismissing and otherwise discouraging all talk about possible expansion, the NHL board of governors gave commissioner Gary Bettman the green light to explore what a 31-, 32- or even a 33-team league might look like.
The first and most obvious beneficiary of Wednesday's announcement in Las Vegas will be the actual Vegas group bidding for an expansion franchise, which has a new 17,500-seat arena set to open in the spring of 2016. Las Vegas checks the three primary boxes to qualify for expansion: It's a market that helps expand the NHL's footprint, its state-of-the-art arena can spin off bags of money and it has a stable, wealthy ownership group.
Officially, Bettman expressed his usual amount of caution, saying that just because the league is exploring an expansion strategy doesn't necessarily mean it will expand.
Formal applications, available after July 6, must be submitted by Aug. 10. The applications will then be turned over to the NHL's executive committee for review. Though no expansion fee has been set, Bettman said his indications from the board were that they wouldn't be interested in moving forward unless the fee began with a five. Translation: It'll cost $500-million (U.S.) or more to get in the door.
In the previous round of expansion, phased in over a three-year period between 1998 and 2000, the four new teams (Minnesota Wild, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators) paid $80-million each to join the league.
"With all the well-chronicled expressions of interest, let's see what we get when you're required to sign on the dotted line on a formal application," Bettman said.
Bettman spent most of his time answering questions about businessman William Foley, who with the NHL's blessing has already conducted an exploratory season-ticket drive in Las Vegas.
Bettman was on hand in February, when Foley launched the drive, which attracted more than 13,200 refundable deposits for season tickets.
Despite the spin from league officials Wednesday – Bettman insisted that Foley had to file the same paperwork as any other potential bidder – the expectation is not if Foley and Co. will land an expansion franchise, but when that might happen.
Bettman said he was impressed by the work the Vegas group has done to date, but cautioned: "There is no list, there's no priority, there's been no determination other than 'we've been listening for a while, let's take a look.' Expansion is a serious and important business decision. You don't do it frivolously."
There is less certainty beyond Vegas, however. Quebec City would be a logical choice, because it has an established fan base, a new 18,500-seat arena opening in September and a well-heeled prospective ownerin Vidéotron, the cash-rich subsidiary of media giant Quebecor.
From an NHL perspective, the problem with Quebec City, or any other potential Eastern Conference candidate, is its geography.
With 16 teams already operating in the Eastern time zone, the NHL would ideally prefer to put two more teams in the West, for a balanced 32-team league. Vegas and a team in the U.S. Pacific Northwest would fit the bill. Seattle and Portland have both been linked to NHL expansion in the past, though neither city is anywhere nearly as close as Quebec City to putting together a viable bid.
At some point, any number of groups representing the Greater Toronto Area may also come out of the woodwork, though Bettman has always been lukewarm about that possibility.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the earliest possible date when an expansion team could begin play would be the 2017-18 season.
Expansion fees – a potential $1-billion windfall – flow to team owners under terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The value to the players association is the increased number of jobs. Many teams, meanwhile, regard the next expansion draft as an opportunity to dump unwieldy contracts on their new partners.
Quebec City's bid will presumably benefit from the recent history in Winnipeg. The Jets lost their team in 1996 to Phoenix, but an ownership group spearheaded by Mark Chipman was able to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg in 2011 by purchasing and relocating the Atlanta Thrashers.
Since then, the Jets have been a smashing box-office success, even though their overall market is small by NHL standards. If a well-run team in a popular hockey market can succeed in Winnipeg, the thinking goes, the same thing could happen in Quebec City, which lost its previous team to Denver in 1995.
Bettman said he knew of "at least one" Quebec group that's interested in applying for an expansion team. "If somebody else is interested, we'll find out in the next few weeks," he added.
Foley hasn't said anything lately about the process, aware that the NHL prefers its prospective owners to be discreet until it is time to cut the cheque. But back in February, Foley proclaimed his intentions without ambiguity: "We have the arena and we have strong ownership. Now it's our job to convince the NHL that Las Vegas is ready for hockey."
Quebec City might be a tougher sell, although there may be some creative solutions to the conference alignment. One would be to ultimately go to three, 11-team conferences. Another would be to divide up the NHL along the same lines as the NFL into eight four-team divisions, and do away with the conferences altogether.
However it plays out, the end game – a 32-team league – came one step closer Wednesday. And you can be sure the mechanics of putting a team back where it belongs in Quebec will start in earnest now.