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Expansion a tricky game for NHL

8/27/2014 - NHL
Las Vegas has an arena in the works but faces other questions about its NHL viability. AP Photo/Scott A. Miller

Oh, we can see it now: slot machines clanging on the concourse of the Baby Needs New Shoes Arena in downtown Las Vegas, maybe a poker tournament between periods of the tilt between the hometown Royal Flushes and the Los Angeles Kings in mid-February.

Who knows, maybe a craps table in the press box? Ten the hard way, baby. Roll them bones.

Could it happen, the NHL expanding into Sin City? Sure. Is it anything close to being a done deal? Well, let the reaction of one owner tell the story: laughter.

That's laughing, as in: "Ha-ha-ha, not a chance. Not right now, and maybe never."

It's late summer, though, and training camps are still far enough away that there's room for general speculation about a host of hockey-related issues, and expansion is going to continue to be a hot topic.

That's because the NHL is as stable economically as it has been in years.

There's a whopping new Canadian television deal that kicks in this season. Ownership issues have been resolved in Arizona, where the Coyotes recently announced a big new naming-rights deal for their rink. The New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers are locked down with committed ownership, although the Panthers still need to sort out their lease issues with Broward County officials in order to secure their long-term future in South Florida.

Heck, even the woebegone New York Islanders look like they're headed toward a brighter future with a move to Brooklyn in the offing and a new ownership group readying to ultimately take over from Charles Wang.

It's natural, then, to imagine what the NHL might do next. With 30 teams split into two conferences -- 16 in the East and 14 in the West -- it's easy to draw the conclusion that the league could, and maybe should, accept two more teams to provide a balanced setup and schedule.

It's not like this is a new issue. There has been no shortage of potential ownership groups surfacing the past couple of years with eyes on putting a team in Seattle; Quebec City; metropolitan Toronto; Kansas City, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; and Las Vegas.

And the fact that expansion fees -- which could run $300 million or more, depending on location -- do not count as hockey-related revenues and therefore don't have to be shared equally with the players also contributes to expansion fever.

Given all of those factors, one might expect owners to pound the table and chant "Expand, expand, expand!" in unison when commissioner Gary Bettman enters the room. Except it doesn't happen that way at all.

Sources tell ESPN.com there is no formal expansion process at this time. Is there discussion of various rumors? Sure, but as Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have steadfastly insisted in recent months, the league is merely looking at all opportunities that present themselves, and no city has been identified as the next to get a team.

"Nothing whatsoever has changed on this subject," Daly told ESPN.com in an email Wednesday. "No process in place, no decisions have been made and nothing new to report."

You know why? Because every option floated by the league has varying obstacles preventing it from becoming reality.

As much as league officials might quietly like the idea of a franchise in Seattle -- and they do -- there's no arena there. And unless the NBA decides to return to Seattle, it's unlikely there's going to be one. That's a problem, no? It's also fair to assume that until the Seattle situation is resolved, the NHL will be loath to make other expansion plans.

There will always be indemnification issues with expanding into Quebec City and the Toronto area, with teams already existing in Montreal and Toronto. And as for Quebec City -- after relocating the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, the league will have to decide whether it wants another small-market Canadian team before entering a larger U.S. market.

In Las Vegas, there's going to be a building; construction of a multipurpose arena began in May by MGM Resorts International and AEG, which owns the Kings. That's key to any expansion discussions, but right now there's no ownership group identified that would pursue putting an NHL team in Vegas.

When asked about reports that a move to The Strip is a given, one NHL owner said it's like a man telling his wife: "Honey, we sold our house. Now all we have to do is find a buyer."

Having a building is important. Not having an owner is key. The cart is miles ahead of the horse at this point. And let's not forget that there remains a great uncertainty among NHL owners and executives about whether a move to Las Vegas would even work.

There's a reason Vegas doesn't have a pro sports team. There are lucrative television deals in the NHL, but it remains a gate-driven league and there are questions about whether a city with a population just north of 600,000 could sell 10,000-12,000 season tickets.

Maybe, but the workforce in Las Vegas is different than that in any other NHL market. With so many people working so many different shifts, would the ability of fans to attend games be affected? And the notion that Vegas casinos would buy large blocks of tickets to give away to fans runs against casino practice, which is to keep patrons in your own building rather than send them elsewhere.

Would casinos invest in suites for high rollers? Perhaps, but being such a transient marketplace -- in terms of both residents and visitors -- casts a huge shadow over the potential viability of the city.

The NHL is going to grow. That seems inevitable, and it's likely expansion would be westward before the league turns its attention to the East. What isn't inevitable is that the league will grow anytime soon, into Nevada or any other specific market.

No matter how enticing the idea of spinning the roulette wheel before a shootout might be.