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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Is the NHL Soon Looking at a 34-Team League? Thankfully, They Say, 'No'

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Over the past two decades or so, the National Hockey League has delivered storied franchises to such deserving U.S. locales as Sunrise, Fla. Raleigh, N.C., and Glendale Ariz.

Hockey is a welcome fit in Columbus, Ohio. Nashville didn’t know what it was missing until the Predators came along. And don’t even get me started with the praise for Anaheim’s No. 1 tourist attraction, the (Mighty) Ducks.

Still, this latest rumor about NHL expansion has me a little uneasy. Laurel, Miss. doesn’t have a team yet. Might they be next?

At the rate the NHL likes to multiply like Mogwai, never say never, even if I’d lean toward Mobile. But the four (yes, four) cities that the league is said to be eying in this latest round of expansion are Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City, and a second franchise in Toronto, where the league feels two viable franchises could survive. That’s at least according to Vancouver Canucks apologist Province columnist Tony Gallagher, who writes that he has been told that Vegas is a “done deal.”

Crap(s).

If that’s the case, the easiest thing for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to do would be to simply move the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes to Quebec City, stamp out the new Nordiques jerseys and call it a day with a new 32-team league. Ah, but seeing there is interest elsewhere why stop there, especially when there’s a $1.4 billion expansion fee attached. This, according to Howard Bloom of Sports Business News.

That’s potentially $5.6 billion flowing into a league where the average value of a team is $413 million, according to Forbes, led by the Maple Leafs ($1.15 billion). The Blue Jackets are worth $175 million, currently 30th in the NHL. Jeremy Jacobs’ Bruins are sixth, worth about $600 million.

So, that’s why we’re most likely headed to a 34-team league, with Seattle and a second team in Toronto floated as possibilities as well. Both make sense from a market standpoint, but are risky ventures in terms of interest. Seattle already has a solid base of Canucks fans, but they could easily be swayed. Such a proposition would be eminently more difficult in Toronto, except for bringing in the really, really disgruntled Maple Leaf fans as well as James Reimer, team president, probably.

“There’s a lot of interest. We’re hearing from multiple groups in Seattle and in Vegas and Kansas City and Quebec City,” Gallagher quotes Bettman as saying while checking out Minnesota for yet another NHL outdoor game. “We have not decided to engage in a formal expansion process but we listen to expressions of interest. It’s not something we’ve seriously considered yet.”

Should the NHL consider it though? Hell no.

I get that the league will become more than $5 billion richer, but at what cost is expansion going to water down the product with four additional teams? By the time the NHL is done putting more teams in places they were never intended to be, Chris Bourque will be a first-line winger somewhere.

If hockey can work in Kansas City, move the Panthers there. If Las Vegas is really, really, truly a good option this time, really, move the Coyotes just a bit north. Columbus can surrender its team to Quebec City, which never should have lost its franchise, just as “The Indie Arts Capital of the World” should never have gotten one.

Thirty is plenty, particularly in an NHL with so many desolate outposts. What, no Atlanta this time?

It's been 15 years since the league last expanded, and adding another two teams would even things out between the East and West, where there are 14 and 16 teams, respectively. Relocation though seems a more fruitful, sensible way of getting that accomplished though.

Thankfully, plenty of important people in the NHL came out on Wednesday denying that the league was, in fact, only three years away from expanding further than anyone would care it to.

“We are in no different position today with respect to expansion than we were the last time we answered the same questions,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to National Post on Wednesday. “There has been interest expressed, we have and will listen to the interest, but we haven’t defined a process and certainly no decisions have been made.”

On much the same note, the Las Vegas Sun went looking for a comment from the NHL about its shiny, new NHL franchise, and received the following response, via email, from Frank Brown, NHL vice president of media relations: “ “To comment would ascribe credibility to the report — and there is none whatsoever.”

So, there you have it. The NHL is looking at expansion, but not really. For now, Vegas will have to wait.

But seriously, give Quebec City its team back already.

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