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Shoalts: Expansion talk a sign of NHL’s success

Gary Bettman is not the type of person to put his feet up, congratulate himself on a job well done and take the rest of the day off. But a lot of people in the NHL commissioner's position might have done so last week.

After all, signs the NHL's business is finally on the right track were in the media coverage at the end of the annual general managers' meetings in Florida. Most of the stories concerned the possibility of NHL expansion – which is far from the GMs' mandate – rather than chewing over any possible rules changes passed along to the league's competition committee.

This was partly due to the GMs' reluctance to make any radical recommendations, but it was also because more than a year after its latest flirtation with disaster by way of a lockout, the NHL is firing on all economic cylinders again. Total league revenue is expected to hit a record $3.6-billion (U.S.) this season, according to media reports, despite the recent woes of the Canadian dollar.

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However, hockey fans in Quebec City should not get excited about the chances of landing an expansion team any time soon. If two more teams are added one day, Seattle and Las Vegas may have a leg up on the competition.

In the meantime, thanks to landing a $5.2-billion, 12-year contract from Rogers Communications Inc. for the NHL's Canadian media rights, Bettman has more team owners beholden to him than ever before. The deal was a crowning achievement to a steady slog by Bettman over the past 21 years to build the overall international revenue to what should be something around $28-million per team next season. That includes television money, merchandising, sponsorships and the successful series of outdoor games.

With that kind of money flowing in, the number of problem children is down to two: the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers. But even they now have a shot at survival (financial success is still a ways off), depending on how much they can keep squeezing out of their local taxpayers.

The Rogers deal also meant survival for others as well.

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk should be lobbying hard for a nice bonus for Bettman. With TSN owner BCE Inc. determined not to lose again to rival Rogers in a TV bidding war, Melnyk will score as much as $400-million over the next 12 years for the Sens regional broadcast rights.

More than one NHL governor will tell you that means Melnyk no longer has to worry if his financial problems outside of hockey could force him to sell his team.

This does not mean the Rogers deal was met with universal applause. Some wealthy teams were not happy to see more of their games included in the national Canadian package to service Rogers's many networks, thus cutting the money they can demand for their own regional packages.

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But, hey, they're all making money and Gary had to think about the greater good.

Besides, the Toronto Maple Leafs have other things to worry about. Like a knife fight erupting at the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. board meeting after Rogers swiped the NHL TV rights from co-MLSE owner BCE. (We hear the first formal MLSE board meeting after the Rogers deal was quite something – nothing but courtesy on the surface but with a deep, deep chill permeating the room.)

Now for expansion: Multiple NHL governors say this discussion is media-driven and there is practically no talk about adding teams. Indeed, Chicago businessman Don Levin said he is "tired of chasing circles," and gave up actively pursuing a team in Seattle because there was no response from the NHL.

The problem in adding two teams (with the Western Conference at 14 teams and the Eastern Conference at 16, this is the only way it will work) is splitting up all that new revenue Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and marketing man John Collins produced. A lot of owners would rather divide that annual $840-million 30 ways instead of 32, especially since the TV numbers are fixed for the next decade.

However, the lure of expansion money is usually too much to resist. At least some NHL governors think it will take three years for an announcement, which just happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the league.

Three years would also give the league time to assess the chances of the Coyotes and Panthers surviving in the long-term.

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Which brings us to why Quebeckers should not get excited about their chances of landing a team: A significant number of NHL owners, most of whom are American, think they solved the problem of too many fans north of the border thinking they are anti-Canadian by moving the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in 2011.

This does not mean the NHL will never return to Quebec, but many owners do not see it as a priority. So that waiting game has years left in it.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More


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