To 32 and beyond: Seattle may not be end of NHL expansion

The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seattle is approved as expected next week. An even balance between conferences. A cross-border rival for the Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Northwest.

Surely the league is done growing for a while?

Maybe not. Two and a half years after voting to add a team in Las Vegas in what has been a rousing success, the NHL has plenty of options when it comes to what’s next. No North American professional sports league has stretched past the number of 32, but no one is ruling it out for the NHL to get there on this continent or beyond.

“The leagues adapt, they look around and they make judgments: Are there markets we would like to go into? Can they support the teams at the revenue levels that we need? If we expand too much too fast, do we dilute the talent such that the product suffers? And those are all judgment calls in the end,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said. “Some leagues and owners are more cautious than others. But sooner or later I would like to believe that in the kind of economy we have, all potential avenues will be explored.”

Considering the success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, Seattle has seemed a no-brainer from the beginning and no one expects anything but approval from the Board of Governors on Tuesday. Seattle would begin play in either 2020 or 2021.

“Hockey needs to be and wants to be in those really fast-paced cities that are growing and setting the mark,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. “Because if we do well here, it’ll raise all the boats for all the teams.”

Vegas already raised the bar for Seattle, which will pay an expansion fee of $650 million — a 30 per cent increase over the $500 million that cleared the way for Vegas to begin play last season and far beyond the $45 million the San Jose Sharks paid to enter the league in 1991 to begin a new era of expansion.

As soon as the NHL went to 31, getting to 32 was inevitable. As balanced as it might seem, it’s not the end.

“Not sure there is any magic about 32,” deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said. “Expansion is appropriate when a convincing case can be made that it will be beneficial and add value to the league as a whole.”

While Daly was reluctant to address what might be next with the Seattle vote pending, Houston, Quebec City and Toronto have all been touted as possible new homes for an NHL team. Communications company Quebecor applied for an expansion team for Quebec City at the same time as Las Vegas. Billionaire businessman and new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has already met with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Houston’s a big city,” Fehr said. “It’s got a long history with professional sports in North America. You would like to think that sooner or later the NHL will have a team there. When and under what circumstances I’m not going to try and predict.”

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economic professor who has written extensively on sports and business, said professional leagues operate much differently from other entities when demand increases. Instead of making more of a product, like a sneaker or beer company might, leagues and teams raise ticket prices or seek new arenas.

Expansion, of course, is another way to feed the beast and Zimbalist said a league could get to 40 teams if it is popular enough and the revenue is spread around correctly.

Any dream of a 40-team NHL would almost certainly involve European expansion, which Bettman said no one has come up with a viable plan for yet. Amid speculation about basing a single NFL team in London, the NHL would likely need to put a full division in Europe to make any sense. And even that has its obstacles, with New Jersey Devils captain Andy Greene pointing to the drastic time changes and coach John Hynes unsure about the long-distance travel as part of an 82-game season.

“When you look at the NHL schedule without going to Europe, it’s a monster,” said Hynes, whose team ended training camp in Switzerland, played an exhibition game there and opened the season in Sweden. “Then you add in European travel and time changes and NHLPA days off for recovery time and it takes its toll.”

For now, the NHL will continue to play games in Europe, explore China and increase its regular season to 1,312 games — once Seattle joins the fray.

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

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