Second Toronto NHL Team Any Closer?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (June 25) — Gary Bettman has long been careful with the word “expansion” and is not in the habit of calling news gatherings to deliberate the topic. Given that he did both on Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas indicates, rather stoutly, the National Hockey League will add at least one team for its 100th anniversary in 2017–18 (the NHL’s 101st year, but Centennial season after the owners canceled 2004–05).

Perhaps not coincidentally, there’s an excellent chance that club will be located in Las Vegas — site of the annual NHL Awards and a league Board of Governors congress this week. The commissioner had to know he’d engender a captive local audience by announcing — at the MGM Grand Resort — that the league will begin to accept expansion applications. Indeed, the Las Vegas Review–Journal played up the hockey story atop its sports web–page: http://bit.ly/1NcPoEE.

“Over the past several years we have received numerous expressions from potential markets and ownership groups that have indicated an interest in joining the National Hockey League,” said Bettman. “The Board decided today to examine those expressions more formally and also to welcome any other groups or markets that may be considering pursuit of an NHL team. The fact that we are beginning this process does not necessarily mean that any expansion teams will be granted.”

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GARY BETTMAN (WITH DEPUTY COMMISSIONER BILL DALY IN THE BACKGROUND) ADDRESSES MEDIA AT THE MGM GRAND RESORT IN LAS VEGAS ON WEDNESDAY.

Bettman added the “fine print” to his remarks, but make no mistake: There is too much money on the table for the NHL to neglect growth. It has been a 30–team aggregation since the turn of the century — 2000-01 — when Columbus and Minnesota came aboard. Atlanta complicated the NHL alignment when it moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and the league is certain to be mindful of an east–west balance as it swells to perhaps 33 clubs by 2020. But, with ownership groups willing to ante up $500 million for entry, the NHL will find a way toward geographic equilibrium.

Given the current set–up — 16 teams in the Eastern Conference; 14 in the Western Conference — the prevailing theory has the NHL favoring cities in the Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones. Las Vegas has a committed ownership group and a 20,000–seat arena funded by MGM Resorts International and AEG Live (Anchutz Entertainment Group) rising adjacent to the hotel/casino “strip.” Seattle has long intrigued the NHL, but its current facility — Key Arena — is a basketball–first venue and the hockey project is nothing more than an architectural blueprint. There have also been indications that the sports community in Seattle is far–more determined to re–acquire a National Basketball Association team; the SuperSonics having upped and moved to Oklahoma City in 2008–09.

Kansas City, Missouri sports an NHL–caliber arena — the 17,544–seat Sprint Center — and has also held in–depth dialogue with the Bettman regime. But, prospective owner Lamar Hunt Jr. isn’t convinced of enough local interest to support a hockey team. Kansas City was part of the NHL in 1974–75 and 1975–76 with the ill–fated Scouts — a dreadful club that won only 27 games in its two seasons before moving to Denver. The franchise has been the New Jersey Devils since 1982–83.

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CONSTRUCTION SITE OF THE NEW LAS VEGAS ARENA — JUST OFF THE “STRIP” — ADJACENT TO THE NEW YORK NEW YORK RESORT, WITH THE EXCALIBUR, THE LUXOR AND MANDALAY BAY TO THE RIGHT. THE RUNWAYS OF McCARRAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT ARE IN UPPER–RIGHT OF THE PHOTO. THE MGM GRAND CAN BE SEEN ACROSS LAS VEGAS BLVD. FROM NEW YORK NEW YORK. THE MGM–AEG ARENA IS SLATED TO OPEN NEXT SPRING.

Geographically, there are no other locations in the mid–to–west region of North America currently in play for the NHL. Portland and Salt Lake City have big enough arenas and clubs in the NBA (the Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz). But, NHL–ownership interest is either negligible (Portland) or non–existent (Salt Lake). The only western province in Canada without a hockey team is Saskatchewan and there has been no talk concerning Saskatoon since the St. Louis Blues flirted with the city back in 1983.

In eastern–Canada, Quebec City has a new arena — the 18,259–seat Videotron Centre — and ownership in communications giant Quebecor. But, the company chairman, Pierre–Karl Peladeau, is also leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, the official opposition in the Quebec National Assembly. As such, there’s a political upshot the NHL might wish to avoid… and the geographic obstacle of another eastern city.

Which brings us to Toronto.

GTA Sports and Entertainment, led by Graeme Roustan, says it will submit to the NHL application process during the July 6 to Aug. 10 window. Roustan spearheaded the movement for a 20,000–seat arena (the GTA Centre) in the city of Markham, northeast of Toronto. But, Markham city council repudiated public funding and the project is, at best, on hold (some claim that it’s dead). Our city, however, does have the Air Canada Centre and likely enough dates to accommodate a second NHL team — if only for awhile. The idea of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment welcoming direct hockey competition seems implausible, but there’s no telling how much the company could secure in territorial indemnification and rental fees for 41 regular–season NHL games.

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COULD A SECOND NHL TEAM CO–INHABIT AIR CANADA CENTRE WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS?

The ownership structure of MLSE could also be a factor. It is 75 percent controlled by communications rivals Rogers and Bell Canada Enterprises, both of which would benefit from the across–platform mobile content generated by a second Toronto team. Bettman repeated on Wednesday what he has claimed in the past — that MLSE does not have a veto over territorial infringement. Which means the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs could not constitutionally (amid NHL bylaws) prohibit a second franchise from locating within its region. Indemnification (to compensate the Maple Leafs for territorial rights) would come out of the guesstimated $500 million expansion fee.

To navigate the geographic hurdle, the NHL could insist that a second Toronto franchise temporarily be placed in the Western Conference — hardly establishing a precedent, as the Leafs were part of the Clarence Campbell (then Western) sector between 1981–82 and 1997–98. Detroit and Columbus were also in the West until NHL divisional realignment in 2013–14. It may not be ideal, with inflated travel costs and late TV games, but it could facilitate GTA Sports’ admission to the league.

It would also arouse the prospect of an all–Toronto Stanley Cup final.

But, let’s not get carried away.

NHL MEDIA GUIDES — PART 9

Next up in my collection–series from 50 years of National Hockey League media guides — the Edmonton Oilers and Atlanta Thrashers:

EDMONTON OILERS

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THE OILERS WERE ABSORBED INTO THE NHL FOR 1979–80 AS ONE OF FOUR SURVIVING MEMBERS OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION. VETERAN GOALIE DAVE DRYDEN (TOP) AND FIRST–YEAR (BUT NOT ROOKIE) CENTER WAYNE GRETZKY WERE PICTURED ON THE CLUB’S FIRST MEDIA GUIDE. GRETZKY WOULD TIE FOR THE NHL SCORING LEAD WITH 137 POINTS, BUT MARCEL DIONNE OF LOS ANGELES WON THE ART ROSS TROPHY BY VIRTUE OF HIS EDGE IN GOALS — 53 TO 51. GRETZKY HAD PLAYED 80 GAMES AS A PRO WITH INDIANAPOLIS AND EDMONTON OF THE WHA, AND WAS THEREFORE INELIGIBLE TO WIN THE CALDER TROPHY AS NHL ROOKIE–OF–THE–YEAR (IT WENT TO DEFENCEMAN RAYMOND BOURQUE OF BOSTON).

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WAYNE GRETZKY’S FIRST NHL BIO ON PAGES 62–63 OF 1979–80 OILERS GUIDE.

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GRETZKY (RIGHT) AND LINE–MATE BLAIR MacDONALD WERE MEMBERS OF THE CAMPBELL CONFERENCE ALL–STAR TEAM IN 1979–80 AND FEATURED ON THE OILERS SECOND GUIDE.

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EDMONTON MEDIA GUIDES 3 AND 4. AS THE OILERS BUILT TOWARD THEIR FIRST STANLEY CUP, GRETZKY ANNIHILATED THE NHL RECORD FOR GOALS, ASSISTS AND POINTS IN ONE SEASON WITH 92–120–212 TOTALS IN 1981–82. HIS REMARKABLE FEATS WERE OUTLINED IN THE 1982–83 OILERS GUIDE (BELOW). EDMONTON LOST THE CUP FINAL TO THE ISLANDERS.

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THE OILERS BEGAN THEIR DYNASTY IN 1983–84 BY ENDING THE ISLANDERS STRING OF FOUR CHAMPIONSHIPS, AND THEN REPEATED BY DOWNING PHILADELPHIA IN 1984–85. GRETZKY APPEARED WITH THE STANLEY CUP AND CONN SMYTHE TROPHIES ON THE 1985–86 GUIDE.

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THE STANLEY CUP WAS MISSING ON THE 1986–87 EDMONTON GUIDE IN A PHOTO OF (LEFT–TO–RIGHT) GLEN SATHER, GRETZKY AND PAUL COFFEY. SATHER IS PICTURED WITH THE JACK ADAMS AWARD FOR COACH–OF–THE–YEAR IN ’85–86; GRETZKY WITH THE HART AND ART ROSS TROPHIES, AND COFFEY WITH THE NORRIS TROPHY AS BEST DEFENCEMAN. CALGARY SHOCKED EDMONTON IN GAME 7 OF THE CAMPBELL CONFERENCE FINAL WHEN DEFENCEMAN STEVE SMITH LEGENDARILY BANKED IN A PASS FROM BEHIND THE NET OFF THE BACK OF GOALIE GRANT FUHR’S LEG. THE FLAMES LOST TO MONTREAL IN THE ’86 CUP FINAL.

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GRETZKY AND THE OILERS BOUNCED BACK WITH CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUPS IN 1987 (OVER PHILADELPHIA) AND 1988 (OVER BOSTON) — MAKING IT FOUR NHL CHAMPIONSHIPS IN FIVE SEASONS. BUT, THE GREAT ONE DID NOT APPEAR IN THE CLUB’S 10th ANNIVERSARY GUIDE (TOP–RIGHT). HE’D BEEN TRADED TO LOS ANGELES ON AUG. 9, 1988.

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THE FIRST OILERS MEDIA GUIDE SANS WAYNE GRETZKY — 1989–90.

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THE OILERS HARDLY MISSED A BEAT WITHOUT NO. 99 AS CAPTAIN MARK MESSIER LED THE CLUB TO ITS FIFTH (AND MOST UNANTICIPATED) TITLE IN 1990, OVER BOSTON.

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CENTER JASON ARNOTT (PICTURED ON THE 1994–95 OILERS GUIDE, TOP–LEFT) FINISHED RUNNER–UP TO MARTIN BRODEUR IN BALLOTING FOR THE CALDER TROPHY AS NHL ROOKIE–OF–THE–YEAR IN ’93–94 WITH 33 GOALS AND 68 POINTS. AS A TEAMMATE OF BRODEUR’S, IN 2000, ARNOTT WOULD WIN THE STANLEY CUP FOR NEW JERSEY WITH AN OVERTIME GOAL ON ED BELFOUR AT THE OLD REUNION ARENA IN DALLAS.

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GRETZKY WAS FRONT–AND–CENTER IN ARTWORK ON THE OILERS 20th–ANNIVERSARY GUIDE.

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EDMONTON OILERS SILVER–ANNIVERSARY MEDIA GUIDE: 2003–04.

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MY MOST RECENT OILERS GUIDE (2006–07) SHOWED JUBILATION BUT MADE NO REFERENCE TO THE CLUB’S SURPRISE STANLEY CUP FINAL APPEARANCE THE PREVIOUS SPRING. EDMONTON LOST A SEVEN–GAME CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES TO THE CAROLINA HURRICANES.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

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FOLLOWING AN ABSENCE OF 19 YEARS, THE CITY OF ATLANTA WAS BACK IN THE NHL WITH THE EXPANSION THRASHERS IN 1999–2000. THE ATLANTA FLAMES HAD MOVED TO CALGARY IN 1980–81 AFTER EIGHT SEASONS. THE THRASHERS PLAYED AT PHILIPS ARENA — CONSTRUCTED ON THE SITE OF THE FLAMES’ OLD HOME, THE OMNI.

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THE SECOND AND THIRD ATLANTA MEDIA GUIDES (2000–01 AND 2001–02). PICTURED ON THE LATTER WAS CAPTAIN RAY FERRARO, A 29–GOAL SHOOTER WITH THE THRASHERS IN THEIR SECOND SEASON. FERRARO IS CURRENTLY THE LEAD ANALYST ON TSN HOCKEY TELECASTS.

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CHOSEN SECOND IN THE 2000 NHL DRAFT (BEHIND NEW YORK ISLANDERS GOALIE RICK DiPIETRO), FORWARD DANY HEATLEY WON THE CALDER TROPHY AS ROOKIE–OF–THE–YEAR IN 2001–02 AND APPEARED — LOOKING DAPPER — ON THE THRASHERS’ FOURTH MEDIA GUIDE.

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MEDIA GUIDES FOR SEASONS 5 AND 6 OF THE THRASHERS WERE RATHER CONSERVATIVE.

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THE 2007–08 ATLANTA GUIDE CELEBRATED THE CLUB’S FIRST (AND ONLY) PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (AN OPENING–ROUND, FOUR–GAME SWEEP BY THE NEW YORK RANGERS IN 2007) AND THE 2008 NHL ALL–STAR GAME AT PHILIPS ARENA. THE THRASHERS PACKED UP AND MOVED MANY MILES NORTH — TO WINNIPEG — FOR THE 2011–12 HOCKEY SEASON.

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