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nhl expansion

NHL expansion may be years away, but conversations on the subject are already happening at the highest level.

That would be at the level of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who met recently with one of two prospective ownership groups interested in putting a team in Las Vegas. (The same source for this information also said Bettman plans to meet shortly with a group interested in a Seattle franchise.)

Bettman had this to say Tuesday, in an e-mail message, when asked about the meetings: "At this point, there is no 'structure' to any of this. We just continue to listen to unsolicited expressions of interest [which have come from a number of parties] and sometimes those expressions of interest come in meetings that the interested parties have requested! To suggest a timetable or anything else at this point is pure speculation."

As reported earlier in this space, Seattle, Las Vegas and Quebec City are the cities in play when it comes to NHL expansion.

Markham, Ont., taxpayers please note: a second team for the Greater Toronto Area is not even part of the conversation.

A priority for Bettman is eliminating the imbalance between the Eastern Conference, which has 16 teams, and the Western Conference, which has 14.

The plan is to add two teams in the west – which leaves Quebec as the long-shot even though it is the only city of the three to have an arena under construction.

However, given the time frame – a good three years until an announcement about expansion, and at least five until any new team hits the ice – Quebec's chances can change.

At present, Seattle seems to be the darling of many NHL governors (even though its arena plans are tilted more to the NBA). and several governors think they can strike it rich by being the first of the four major North American professional sports leagues to grab the Las Vegas market.

There are two groups competing to build an arena in Las Vegas: MGM Resorts International and AEG (owner of the Los Angeles Kings) are proposing to do it with $350-million (U.S.) in private money, while The Cordish Companies want to partner with the city and use public money to build a $390-million playpen.

There are also two groups competing to land an NHL expansion franchise for Las Vegas, and both are well-heeled: The Maloof family (former owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings), and a group led by television/movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, former MGM chairman Harry Sloan and David Bonderman, co-founder of TPG Capital LLP.

Bruckheimer's group poked around an NHL team for Las Vegas several years ago, but backed off when the TV producer thought the league was asking for too much money and no new arena was in sight.

The cost of an NHL expansion franchise will be at least $270-million, but this time Bettman comes bearing labour peace in the form of a collective agreement with the players until at least 2020, as well as rich American and Canadian national broadcast contracts.

This leaves the prospective owner in Quebec – newly minted separatist political candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau – with some tough going. He could be left hoping to buy and relocate a struggling team rather than get an expansion nod.

But Péladeau is doing the right things so far. He may have resigned recently from media giant Quebecor Inc. in order to run provincially for the Parti Québécois, but he remains the controlling owner.

Having Quebecor buy the French-language rights as part of the massive media deal the NHL recently signed with Rogers Communications Inc. was a good move. League governors have warm feelings for those who put money in their pockets, although it does not mean getting a franchise in return is a slam dunk.

Péladeau also doesn't need to worry much about his politics getting in the way. A lot of NHL owners would sell a franchise to Russia President Vladimir Putin, as long as the cheque cleared.

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