Bill Foley (left) and Gary Bettman (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
As expected, the NHL granted an expansion franchise to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season. More intriguing, though, was what it had to say about Quebec City's chances of getting an NHL team in the future.
So this is really happening. The NHL is rolling the dice on Las Vegas. It’s gambling on Sin City, placing its bet, doubling down, upping the ante, raising the stakes, going all in, looking to hit the jackpot, hoping not to crap out. There, we got that out of the way. That pretty much covers the betting analogies, so let’s never see them again for the next hundred years.
With its announcement that the league intends to expand to 31 teams by granting an expansion franchise to Las Vegas, the NHL finally exposed its worst kept secret. Pundits had been professing this was a slam dunk for the better part of the past 18 months, so there was no sense of surprise when Vegas franchise owner Bill Foley, who told reporters that he played “shiny hockey” on a pond when he was a kid when his father was stationed in Ottawa, was invited into the fold.
“We think this is a tremendously exciting opportunity, not just for Las Vegas, but for the league,” Bettman told reporters in Las Vegas, site of the league’s awards ceremony later tonight. “This expansion comes at a time when our game is more competitive than ever, ownership is stronger than ever, the player base is more talented than ever and the business, and the future opportunities for the business, are greater than ever.”
So now the Las Vegas Black Knights, or whatever they end up being called, will hit the ground running in their search for a hockey department. Former NHLer Murray Craven will do most of the legwork on that front and an early candidate to run the team’s hockey operations department is Scott Mellanby. Jeff Crisp, son of former NHLer Terry and a scout with the Anaheim Ducks, is said to be a candidate to head up the new team’s scouting department.
So the league will get $500 million, which comes to $16.7 million per team, and an untapped market of 2.2 million gets a chance to show it belongs in the big leagues. Some, such as your trusty correspondent, are dubious. Foley pointed out that he believes that tourists who are in Las Vegas to gamble, drink and party will be a “very small minority” of the people who go to games. And that will be paramount. You cannot build a sustainable fan base on tourists and transients. The good people and corporations of Las Vegas will make or break this franchise and I’m not convinced that support will be there after the novelty wears off and this team is bad and boring instead of cute and cuddly. “We sold 14,000 season tickets for a team that didn’t exist and an arena that hadn’t been built,” Foley told Gene Principe of Sportsnet. “Las Vegas is hockey ready.”
So, it appears is Quebec City, but that dream will have to wait. What was even more intriguing than Las Vegas getting a team was how the league handled the other expansion applicant. It did not dismiss Quebec City, it pointed out that its application has been “deferred.” Until when? Well, that of course, is the pivotal question. Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Dion was even invited to speak at the conference, which seemed odd, and was gracious in his words for the NHL. (Full disclosure: THN is owned by TVA Sports, which is a branch of Quebecor.)
Commissioner Gary Bettman basically said that on its own merits, Quebec City is a market that is NHL-worthy. But the fluctuating Canadian dollar made it too risky a proposition. But he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly went even further, with Daly saying, “The Quebecor application was impressive enough that we’ve put it on hold. And as we told the board and the board embraced the fact that it continues to represent a prime opportunity for the league given different circumstances.” Then Bettman followed up with: “Are we obviously aware of the interest and capabilities both of Quebec City and Quebecor? The answer is absolutely yes. They’re on our radar screen, for another time perhaps, for another day perhaps, when circumstances may allow.”
Wow. That, to these eyes, means one of two things. Either the league is holding Quebec City as a landing spot for an existing franchise (cough, Carolina) or it’s playing this market like a fiddle and making it Hamilton, Part Deux. As far as the first possibility, perhaps Quebec City is another Winnipeg, a place to which the league would probably rather not expand, but which provides a safe haven for a team that needs to get out of Dodge in a hurry. As far as the second possibility, any team that wants to go with its hat in hand to the taxpayers for a handout knows it could play the Quebec City card to gain leverage.
Will Quebec City ever get a team? Hard to say. There are only so many corporate dollars to go around in the province of Quebec and a team in the province’s capital would undoubtedly have an adverse effect on the bottom line of the Montreal Canadiens. There is no doubt the Habs would see their market share, not to mention corporate support and TV audience, parsed by having a second team in the province. And that's not good for their business. And it’s not as though there’s an abundance of big corporate money in Quebec City.
But the important thing is there is hope that the Nordiques will come back. Even if it turns out the Canadian dollar was a convenient excuse and the league has no intention of going to Quebec City, those hopeful fumes can carry on for a long time. Just ask the people of Hamilton who lived on that hope for the better part of two decades. And if things go sideways somewhere else, the league knows it has a rabid fan base and ready-made arena to provide a soft landing.