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Hockey NHL finally ready to gamble on Las Vegas expansion

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks in Las Vegas on Feb. 10, 2015.

L.E. Baskow/AP

So NHL expansion is on, an NHL source confirming what some of us have been predicting for years: That the league's desire to go to Las Vegas trumps any concern they might have about the long-term viability of the market.

William Foley, the Vegas owner-in-waiting, has been patiently, discreetly, quietly waiting in the wings for the process to unfold, which is part of the protocol that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the league's executive committee demands.

They do not want loud, boisterous, tub-thumping people joining their ownership group. They want sober, well-heeled businessmen, the lessons of previous expansions not lost on the key decision-makers, beginning with the Boston Bruins' Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the league's board of governors, who doesn't need a quick-fix expansion payment to stabilize his already successful franchise.

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Even Bettman talked about this publicly at the start of the Stanley Cup final: That any decision to go into Las Vegas, or Quebec for that matter, would be based solely on whether it enhances overall NHL goals.

Above all, they do not want any more "basket-case" franchises – franchises that soon after the first glow of expansion wears off, suddenly become drains on the league's overall finances, through the revenue-sharing mechanism that for years has propped up the likes of the Arizona Coyotes or the Carolina Hurricanes.

Internally, the belief is that Vegas can become something that other non-traditional, warm-weather franchises have been unable to achieve – and that's cobble together a business model that takes advantage of all the traditional NHL revenue sources (gate receipts, television, private suites, advertising), plus adds one the others don't have.

Las Vegas is a hospitality hub, a destination for many seeking to get out on the town in short whistle-stop trips to the Nevada city. Nowadays, people go to Vegas not just for the gambling, but for the dining and the shows. Suddenly, the NHL will be on offer as a tourist option.

Snowbirds have not flocked to games in Arizona or Florida the way those teams hoped, but the belief is Vegas can be different because people go to Vegas with a mindset to get out on the town.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

The core of any successful NHL franchise is to develop a loyal fan base that can afford season tickets and Vegas managed a successful ticket drive last year already that produced 13,2000 season-ticket deposits.

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Procedurally, there is only one step left to complete the process – and it will take place June 22, when the board of governors meets in Las Vegas in conjunction with the annual awards ceremony – and it is considered mostly a formality.

Given that the powerful executive committee recommended expansion, it is hard to imagine that the board of governors wouldn't approve it. The NHL has been coming to Vegas for going on a decade now, intrigued by the market and not at all concerned about the fact that betting is legal there.

As for Quebec, the NHL will acknowledge that Winnipeg's success with the relocated Atlanta Thrashers franchise is proof that teams operating in a small Canadian market, with stable ownership, a faithful fan base and a quality building, can make a go of it in the 21st-century NHL. The concern there is the buy-in. The Jets reportedly paid only $170-million (U.S.) for the Thrashers, which included a $60-million relocation fee.

Factoring in the $500-million U.S. expansion fee and today's currency exchange rate, the cost to potential investors in Quebec would be high – not too high for them, but possibly too high to run the operation comfortably in the black.

It makes more sense for the league to use Quebec as a Plan B, in case one of the franchises struggling financially finally gives up.

Bettman strongly opposes relocation as anything but a last resort, but it may be getting there in a few places. Either way, Quebec will need to wait a while longer. The door isn't completely shut; it just didn't open wide enough to admit them this time around.

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NHL GMs, for their part, are excited by the development. For some, it's a chance to dump a player on a too-expensive, long-term contract on the new kids on the NHL block. For others, it's a chance to shop the rosters of their opponents for reinforcements, players that teams don't want to give up for nothing to an expansion team.

Vegas will create greater geographic balance – 15 teams in the West, 16 teams in the East. It isn't perfect, but it's better than the system they have; and in some ways, mirrors the 21-team NHL which was in place from 1979 until 1991, when the San Jose Sharks entered the league.

In a 10-year span, the NHL added nine teams – too many, really, and too many were set up to fail on the ice by the onerous terms of the expansion draft. That will change this time around, with the NHL putting protocols into place already, the players association granting their approval and everything set up nicely to welcome fabulous Las Vegas to the fold for the start of the 2017-18 season.

Viva Las Vegas. You can almost hear Bettman cuing up the old Elvis Presley tune in one week's time.

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