The climax of the NHL’s centenary celebrations this year has started to occur. This year the NHL scheduled its general managers’ meeting in historical Montreal, almost 100 years to the day when the NHL was founded in the Windsor Hotel. You could not accuse NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman of being an ignorant American on the subject of the founding of an exclusive Canadian hockey league in 1917. It was clear from every article on the NHL news section on their website that he was very articulate and knowledgeable about what happened a century ago. He would say all the important and appropriate right things about the historical event and the importance of Montreal in the founding of the league.
What made the occasion sad was that several important relevant NHL topics were brought up at various press conferences and Bettman could not or dared not tell the truth publicly. Instead he was forced to talk as honestly as he could in the usual political/bureaucratic jargon that officials and politicians use in public – vague, hopeful generalities that get politicians and officials off the hook, that paste things over and settle nothing. Let’s go over them and read between the lines.
The first topic was NHL expansion and realignment. Bettman quite rightly stressed the importance of the NHL consolidating and absorbing its newest franchise, Las Vegas. But his bureaucratic jargon statement was that NHL was not going to merely expand for the sake of achieving symmetry – ie. to reach at least 32 teams so that the league could realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, each with 4 divisions of 4 teams, which would make things easier for the fans to understand and allow the league to expand to 40, even 48 teams.
What he didn’t dare say was that the NHL wanted to reach a symmetrical number of teams during the last expansion and failed, probably because the $500 million expansion fee scared away investors and now he’s got a major problem for future expansion. Either he finds a way to persuade rich investors to accept a $500 million expansion fee for an NHL franchise or he finds a face-saving way to refund some of the expansion money back to Las Vegas owner, Bill Foley, and then sets a new lower expansion fee that investors can accept. Of course none of that was mentioned.
The next topic was NHL expansion to Houston. Tilman Fertitta, owner of the NBA Houston Rockets has publicly stated on his Twitter account that he would like to have an NHL franchise in Houston. Bettman in response uttered the usual generalities that the NHL is delighted in knowing that some investors have an interest in the league and that they are ready to listen to anybody if they can make a new franchise feasible (especially if they have got a spare $500 million around).
What he didn’t say was that the NHL would be overjoyed if Houston joined the league as soon as possible. Houston would be a perfect city to round out the NHL to 32 teams. It is the largest American market without an NHL team. It is the perfect rival for the Dallas Stars. It is located in the right time zone/area to make realignment and balancing the conferences possible. Bettman also did not mention if Fertitta would accept a $500 million expansion fee. But Bettman and the NHL want Houston in the league as fast as possible.
Then came the subject of Quebec City returning to the NHL. Bettman simply repeated the usual previous public statements, that he told before, that he had warned Quebec City officials and politicians that they could keep building their arena but not to expect a team – and not to rule out the possibility of a team coming back to Quebec.
What he didn’t say was that the NHL would love to have Quebec City and its market, now grown to 800,000+ back in the league. That the league loves the new Videotron arena as evidenced by awarding Quebec City a World Cup exhibition game and allowing the Montreal Canadiens to play preseason games there every year. That Bettman had met with officials like the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec provincial premier and urged them to keep building the arena. And most pertinently, that the real reason that the NHL has put the Quebec City bid in “suspension” is because they cannot accept the unsuitable bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau, owner of Quebecor.
At most press conferences, Bettman was accompanied by Montreal Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson, the NHL Board member whom Peladeau publicly insulted with inappropriate racial remarks after he lost his attempt to buy the Canadiens himself. Peladeau’s name was never mentioned at any press conference. Nor was Peladeau present at any public meetings which Bettman attended, a usual occurrence. Sadly, Bettman dropped no hints about any behind the scenes attempts to find a suitable Quebec City owner instead of Peladeau, or if any progress had been made in that direction.
The final interesting topic raised by both Bettman and Molson was about the failure to host an NHL outdoor game in Montreal. And what they didn’t say was that they were waiting for Major League Baseball to announce expansion and bring back the Montreal Expos in an appropriate new baseball stadium. It is well known that Montreal is the leading city for a new MLB expansion franchise and that there is already a group of local businessmen ready to submit a bid and deal with a new stadium issue when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has publicly favored a returned Expos himself, officially announces expansion. It would seem that a returned Expos is a foregone conclusion in the near future and that the NHL is only waiting for that happy event to occur so that they can play outdoor games in Montreal.
And so concludes this article about the NHL’s latest official statements about what is going on with their league. The Commissioner said a lot of relevant, appropriate, and important things in public, but what he didn’t say was much more meaningful.