NHL Expansion: One Year Closer; One Town Down
It's easy to dislike NHL Commish Gary Bettman, and for good reason.
The 2012-2013 lockout was still one of the most needless sports stoppages in North American history. Bettman totally miscalculated the resolve and experience of the NHLPA's hired gun, Donald Fehr, and almost blew an entire season settling at levels the players would have accepted much earlier in the process.
But give the dude credit; he knows how to set the chessboard to get what he wants.
And what Bettman wants is a league with 32 teams.
Among others, player agent Allan Walsh put two and two together immediately after the lockout was lifted:
- His dogged pursuit of 'cost certainty' -- and willingness to deploy a scorched earth policy to get it -- has helped mitigate the fact that the NHL expanded too quickly in the past and teams in non-traditional markets didn't have much of an opportunity to embed their brand into the game's national fanbase;
- His promise of lucrative expansion fees will line the coffers of teams still emerging from that particular policy;
- His office has promoted the IIHF report about the number of hockey players worldwide is growing rapidly, thus creating more interest as well as ultimately adding to the elite talent pool; and
- His realignment plan of two unbalanced conferences makes it more difficult by sheer arithmetic for the 16 Eastern teams to make the playoffs than the 14 Western teams, thus creating a desire by the former -- including politically powerful clubs who might otherwise be opposed -- to 'balance' the equation.
Bettman made a shrewd decision to keep the league's American broadcast outlet at NBC, where it benefits by being an anchor of that sports network's programing. As a result, television ratings have spiked, with another boost on the way this winter when hockey takes center stage -- as it always does -- during the Winter Olympics.
The former has been a perpetual bargaining chip lately, and with suddenly-sleazy Chris Hansen still scraping doo-doo off his shoes, it may be a while before the NBA gives him the time of day. So if a new arena designed for winter sports is going to get the impetus to proceed, it will probably be the NHL that leads the way. The issue will put Hansen in an ironic position; his group -- including Microsoft poobah Steve Ballmer and members of the Nordström family -- committed to put $290million into the deal only when an NBA franchise was secured.
However, Hansen's underhanded antics may find him needing to reassure a Seattle City Council that is surely uneasy about its tarnished white knight. Hansen and his group may need to backtrack. They won't want to be seen as an impediment to an NHL franchise being granted, and if they stand aside for someone else, they may become irrelevant to local government and yield their standing as prime candidates for NBA ownership whenever they get out of that league's doghouse.
The key for Seattle, though, is Bettman wants it in his league. A way will be found.
So that's one Western slot filled. Who covers the other?
Simple, the current NHL team with the least political capital.
Goodbye, Columbus. See you in the West. And if you don' t like it, see you in Portland. A Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor would be a travel dream come true for NHL teams out west who long for the coziness that the proximity of eastern swings provide.
The role of bargaining chip thus moves one state south of Seattle. Do know that the NHL Commish will use it effectively. And if necessary, ruthlessly.