PITTSBURGH — The NHL is nearing an expansion decision, commissioner Gary Bettman announced Monday before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
“I’m not going to handicap what is going to happen,” Bettman said during his state of the union news conference. “But when the board [the NHL Board of Governors] meets in Las Vegas on June 22, I am fairly certain we will know more than we do today.”
The NHL’s executive committee of owners, a smaller, more powerful group, will provide its recommendation within the next two weeks ahead of the full Board of Governors meeting.
“We’ll all know more after the executive committee makes a recommendation,” Bettman said. “I have no doubt that recommendation will probably get leaked in advance of the board meeting. There will be plenty of time to speculate.”
Bettman stressed the same options remain on the table: no expansion at all; expansion deferred; or expansion to Las Vegas and/or Quebec City.
Expansion requires a two-thirds majority vote from the 30 owners.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, when asked about the possibility of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas, said that had very little impact on the NHL’s decision regarding expansion to Las Vegas.
As for why the expansion process has moved along at a snail’s pace, one item contributing to the delay was establishing expansion draft rules that owners could live with. The NHL wants the proposed expansion team(s) to be more competitive than in years past, which means exposing higher-quality players.
The league shared some of those potential expansion draft details back at the March GM meetings, though since then some of those proposed rules have already been tweaked or changed.
Most notably, part of the initial expansion draft rules was that the total salaries for the players made available by each team in the expansion draft must be at least 25 percent of the previous season’s payroll for that team.
Daly said Monday that’s no longer the case: “I think at one point it was contemplated there would be a minimum threshold of salary made available. That’s not part of the current formation.”
The league and NHL Players’ Association have agreed on terms for the expansion draft when it comes to all the players who have no-move clauses or no-trade clauses — of which there appears to be a significant difference.
“Here’s what I’ll say: No-trade [clauses] carries no significance with respect to the expansion draft at all. A trade is a trade, and if you have a no-trade clause it doesn’t mean you can’t be exposed in the expansion draft,” Daly said.
But when asked about no-move clauses, Daly did not comment, which either means players with no-move clauses cannot be exposed in the expansion draft or perhaps some form of that. Certain young players will also be exempt.
“First- and second-year professionals are exempt and don’t have to be protected,” said Daly. “There is a specific procedure and definition with respect to how you qualify professional players. But I’m not in a position to say more than that.”
If the NHL does decide to vote in favor of expansion on June 22, then the league at that point would be in position to reveal more firm details on an expansion draft.
The other major topic that came up during the commissioner’s media briefing Monday was the ongoing issue of whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) will pick up insurance and transportation costs to have NHL players participate in the Olympics.
Those costs have been borne by the IOC and IIHF for the five Olympic Games in which the NHL has participated dating back to 1998, but the IOC has said publicly it will no longer pay those costs, and Bettman made it very clear the league will not be paying, either, which means unless someone else is able to come up with a plan for covering those costs, the NHL’s participation in the Winter Olympics will likely come to an end.
If the IOC and IIHF are unable to resolve the issue of who would pay those costs, “I have no doubt that it will have a significant impact on our decision,” Bettman said.
“I’m pretty sure that our teams are not really interested in paying for the privilege for disrupting our season,” the commissioner added.
Daly also later added that he’s confident Donald Fehr and the NHL Players’ Association feel the same way: If the IOC isn’t paying for those costs, the NHLPA wouldn’t support going, either.
The Olympics have long been a contentious subject for NHL owners, many of whom believe any benefits of having roughly 150 players take part in the international tournament every four years are far outweighed by the disruption of having to shutter the league for three weeks or so to accommodate the event.
There are other factors the league will consider in deciding whether to continue going to the Olympics, including whether there is a benefit to being in Beijing in 2022, given the potential hockey market China might represent. But if the travel and insurance costs — which represent “many, many, many millions of dollars,” according to Bettman — aren’t resolved, those other questions may be moot.
“That almost becomes an easy showstopper, and you don’t even have to get into the other discussions,” Bettman said.
It’s expected that a decision on whether to take part in future Olympics — starting with 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea, and Beijing four years later — will be made in late 2016 or early 2017 because Hockey Canada and USA Hockey in particular will need to make plans for Olympic rosters if the NHL isn’t going to take part.