On a trip to Minneapolis Wednesday to scout for a future outdoor game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman threw in the direction of Seattle another tease about expansion.
“There’s a lot of interest,” he told the Star-Tribune. “We’re hearing from multiple groups in Seattle . . . in Vegas, in Kansas City, in Quebec City. We haven’t decided to engage in a formal expansion process, but as we always do, we listen to expressions of interest.
“There may be good reasons to expand, there may be not. It’s not something we’ve seriously considered yet.”
The NHL last expanded in 2000 when Minnesota and Columbus entered the league. The league has 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the West, making two adds in the West logical.
Retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a partner with Chris Hansen in the SoDo arena project, has been mentioned as a possible bidder for an expansion team, as has Chicago minor-league hockey owner Don Levin and New York investment banker Ray Bartoszek, who last summer attempted to buy the Phoenix Coyotes with intent of moving the team to Seattle.
Bettman toured the Twins’ Target Field and the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium and said both were “very, very attractive” sites for the NHL’s hugely popular outdoor stadium games.
“Despite all of the debate about what the right number is, you can’t really overdo these,” said Bettman, The six stadium games, including the Heritage Classic in Vancouver Sunday, drew 375,000 fans.
He also painted a rosy picture of the NHL’s economic health.
“Look at the last year — we now have long-term labor peace, we have two very significant long-term major media contracts for national rights in Canada and the U.S., we sold three franchises over the summer. We’re probably the most stable and in the best position we’ve ever been in.”
He said the league is playing at 95 percent capacity in the regular season and more than 100 percent in the playoffs.
“Revenues have never been higher, TV ratings have never been higher, the game on the ice has never been better followed and received and praised.”
Bettman was non-commital about the NHL’s return to the Olympics in 2018 in South Korea. Several injuries and a disrupted season have owners skeptical.
“It’s not all good and it’s not all bad,” he said. “It’s a balancing act and some of that balance gets affected by where the Olympics are. When we were in Vancouver and Salt Lake City, it was easy to tip the scales. When you’re in other places, not so easy.”