For Bill Daly, what happened in Vegas most certainly didn’t stay in Vegas, but after giving the most concrete evidence ever that the league is already down the road to either expanding or relocating a team to Sin City, the NHL commissioner poured cold water on the notion.
But this is clearly more than just doing due diligence and kicking tires. In an interview with Michael Russo of the Minneapolis-Star Tribune, Daly acknowledged he was in Las Vegas on other business this past weekend, where he had a tour of the 20,000-seat rink that is being built by MGM Resorts and he met with a potential ownership group that has expressed an interest in owning a franchise.
That ownership group is reportedly led by billionaire William P. Foley, who made his fortune in title insurance and owns 14 wineries on the west coast, and includes the Maloof family, which owns several hotels in Las Vegas and once owned the Sacramento Kings of the NBA. In fact, George Maloof Jr., was the one who did the deal with the NHL to bring its awards show to Las Vegas.
Nobody knows exactly where the NHL is when it comes to Las Vegas as a landing spot, but it’s clear the league is further down the road there than it is with any other potential cities. In fact, one of my sources who has knowledge of the inner workings of the NHL board of governors said the board secretly and very quietly at its last meeting approved Foley and Maloof as owners of a Las Vegas expansion franchise that will begin play in 2017-18.
But Daly said in an email to thn.com that people are getting too far ahead of themselves when it comes to assuming Las Vegas will be playing in the Western Conference anytime soon.
“There was virtually no discussion about Las Vegas (or expansion for that matter) at the last Board meeting,” Daly wrote in his email. “Far from a ‘done deal.’ Still have to deal with the foundational question of whether we want to expand at all and if so how do we want to do it. And that hasn’t really been broached with the BOG yet. After that, we will have to tackle whether Las Vegas is the right market, and specifically, whether we think it can support an NHL franchise long term. I think more work needs to be done on that issue as well.”
Clearly, though, the league is beginning to do that work. Daly told the Star-Tribune that he spoke with a number of people in the service industry in Las Vegas about whether they felt an NHL team could do well there. One of the things the league clearly has to determine is whether or not the population of the area would support hockey because it would be too risky to hedge your bets on the transient tourist population making up the fan base for 41 home dates per year.
“Clearly we think that for a Las Vegas market to support a professional sports franchise, you need the support of the locals,” Daly told the Star-Tribune. “What’s difficult on making a call on Vegas is it’s such a unique market. It’s really hard to know. The owners are going to have to be satisfied that the prospects of putting a franchise there are good and the fundamentals are solid.”
Does that sound like a league that has had “virtually no discussion” about Las Vegas? It doesn’t to me. Daly even offered comment on how, if the NHL ended up in Las Vegas, it would request Nevada’s legislature to take the franchise’s games down in the local sports books, the way UNLV did with its college basketball team.
“It’s really more a visceral rationale than anything else,” Daly told Russo. “You don’t want guys in the stands with bet tickets in their hands the only reason they’re watching the game is so they can cash in on a bet afterwards. That’s not an environment you want to foster or create as a professional sports league.”
So is the NHL simply looking into Las Vegas as an expansion site as it would any other city that seriously expressed an interest or is it, as some have suggested, already a fait-accompli? Or is it somewhere in between? Perhaps the NHL is setting out trial balloons to see how the concept would be accepted.
We do know there is an ownership led by Foley that has significantly deep pockets. That checks off one box for the NHL. We also know that an arena is being built. That checks off another box. All the league now has to do is be convinced that Las Vegas is a viable market and it looks like it is well on the way to making that determination right now.
NHL players might be well advised to start preparing their livers and their wallets for road trips to Las Vegas, or at least get accustomed to playing with a guilty conscience, which some players claim is when they play best. As Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo tweeted recently: “Gonna be unreal when Las Vegas goes undefeated a home every year.”