BY GEOFF BAKER / SEATTLE TIMES STAFF REPORTER
INSIDE SPORTS BUSINESS
Training camp can’t start soon enough for the NHL as it deals with the usual midsummer rumor-mongering.
Unlike past summers, Seattle now plays a key role in filling empty column space between puck drops. First, there was the non-sourced July report out of New York — immediately shot down by everybody — that Wayne Gretzky himself had joined would-be Seattle owners trying to bring hockey here.
And then came this week’s tidbit out of Vancouver that Las Vegas was a “done deal” for NHL expansion. That was followed by a tweet from a sports business columnist that the NHL would also expand to Seattle, Quebec City and install a second Toronto team by 2017.
As usual, the steak beyond this sizzle amounts to little more than frozen puck patties.
“There is nothing new to report on this subject,’’ NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me Wednesday. “Nothing new has happened.”
Sure, the NHL likes to break its own news and likely wouldn’t confirm expansion leaks even if they were true. And, yeah, the league wants to expand to Las Vegas and Seattle, while Quebec City and the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, make sense too.
If the NHL didn’t like Las Vegas, it wouldn’t keep holding awards shows there. If NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wasn’t interested in Seattle, he wouldn’t have flown here to meet with politicians.
But there’s a world of difference between wanting something and deals being done. The Mariners might want to make Mike Trout their new center fielder. But announcing it would be ridiculous if the Los Angeles Angels have no intention of trading him.
It takes two to tango and, in this case, make real news. And Seattle and Las Vegas don’t have their dancing shoes on yet.
As for Toronto and Quebec City, the league has already largely saturated the Canadian marketplace. In other words, it would probably head south of the border before increasing its Canadian footprint via expansion.
That doesn’t rule out future Canadian sites altogether. Quebec City and its under-construction arena would make an excellent relocation spot for the Florida Panthers or other struggling franchises. And until the Panthers’ situation is fully resolved, the league might limit expansion to the U.S. and keep Canadian options as emergency landing zones.
That leaves Seattle and Las Vegas for expansion.
But while Las Vegas is building a privately financed arena, there is no ownership group there to negotiate with. Sure, the NHL likes Jerry Bruckheimer and who wouldn’t want to pal around with a blockbuster Hollywood film producer? Still, until Bruckheimer forms an actual ownership group and expansion terms are committed to paper, that cart is screaming downhill with no horse.
Also, since expansion tends to come in multiples, Seattle is the logical pairing for Las Vegas to balance the 14-team Western conference with the 16 in the East. But while Seattle has multiple potential owners — including real-estate mogul front-runner Victor Coleman — arena plans have stagnated.
“Obviously, the arena uncertainty in Seattle creates obstacles to going forward with expansion prospect there at this time,’’ Daly told me.
So, for now, expansion to Seattle and elsewhere is on hold while would-be arena owner Chris Hansen gathers documentation on traffic in his proposed Sodo location. Once Hansen submits that to city officials, it will be four months before an Environmental Impact Study is completed.
There is also the issue of changing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hansen, the city and county. That MOU calls for up to $200 million in funds to be provided Hansen if he gets an NBA and NHL team for the arena; $120 million if it’s NBA only.
But there is no apparent political will to change the MOU to an NHL-first scenario. And there has also been zero indication from Coleman that he would front the extra $120 million or $200 million to build the arena without public funding. Even if Coleman and Hansen foot the entire arena bill, the city and county still have to sign off. Only then could te NHL even bring an expansion proposal before its fractious 30-member board of governors.
Until that board approves it, the NHL isn’t announcing expansion here. And without Seattle, the NHL likely isn’t announcing expansion to Las Vegas or anyplace else.
If wishes constituted “done deals” then Seattle and Las Vegas would already have teams. For now, training camp is mercifully only two weeks away.
Geoff Baker is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter who writes a column on sports business. Baker: email@example.com or 206-464-8286. On Twitter: @GeoffBakerTIMES
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