(Originally Posted on September 2015)

The NHL announced last month that the expansion applications for both Quebec City and Las Vegas had progressed to Phase 3, bringing their realizations of having an NHL franchise a little bit closer. How much closer though is anyone’s guess because no one has the slightest idea what the significance of Phase 3 is and the NHL is pretty mum on the subject. For all we know the two hopeful cities are just taking the first step on the proverbial thousand mile journey.

This current expansion process (the first undertaken since Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus and Atlanta joined the NHL between 1998 and 2000) has smeared more then a little egg on the League’s face. In June the NHL sent out sixteen invitations to parties it was convinced were interested in NHL expansion, yet only received responses from Las Vegas and Quebec City. The NHL even got a little catty in the press release announcing the two responding applicants, taking swipes at those who didn’t respond.

The simple fact is that the earliest word on the chances of these two cities joining the NHL club won’t come until December and fans should manage their expectations. There’s just as much chance that both applications will be rejected as there is of either one being approved. But if in their clandestine discussions the NHL decides to only approve one of the applicants, word is that it would most likely be Vegas, and that should inspire more then a little head scratching around the sports world as well as more then a little concern in the hockey one.

This isn’t about Vegas’ long-term prospects or its viability as a hockey market. Vegas is in the middle of building a state of the art arena that can house over seventeen thousand hockey fans and they have taken deposits for over twelve thousand season tickets based on just the hope that the NHL comes to Sin City. And it doesn’t look like the 500 million dollar entry fee will be a problem for potential owner Bill Foley (more on that a little later).

Rather it’s about the complications that would inevitably arise from having a franchise in a city that’s slogan is “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” (Or roughly translated: Spend Your Vacation here Doing Things That Would Get You Arrested, Fired and Divorced at Home!”)

There’s a good reason none of the other major professional sports leagues have ever called Vegas home. The truth of the matter is that in the U.S., the NHL trails the NFL, the NBA and MLB in popularity by a mile and in many parts of the country NASCAR, professional golf and apple pie are more popular then professional hockey. Yet none of the NHL’s more popular competitors have ever considered a franchise in North America’s casino capital. If the NHL were to expand into Vegas, it would be the first genuine sports franchise ever in that city.

And while there have been plenty of top of mind reasons not to put a team in Sin City, the number one reason no pro sports league has wanted anything to do with Las Vegas is simple. Bad headlines.

Consider the following scenario: As an expansion team, Vegas would have one of the first selections in the NHL entry draft for it’s first few seasons in the league. That means that the initial influx of talent would be 18 and 19 year old kids, many probably hailing from small towns. On top of that, they’ll be signed to multi-million dollar deals and most will have little to no experience managing their own finances or money, let alone the millions of dollars dropped in their lap their first day on the job. In Las Vegas, a city notorious for selling every vice known to man on every street corner and in every price range.

So you’re essentially taking a teenager from Nowhere Manitoba or Tiny Town Pennsylvania, giving them a couple million dollars and dropping them in a city where you can buy, sell or indulge in anything? Grown men can’t handle that kind of temptation let alone a nineteen year old. How long until one of their mug shots winds up on CNN? How long until it’s for a crime worse then possession or solicitation? How long until one of them finds themselves wrapped in the tentacles of the less then admirable forces behind the Vegas gambling industry (which is the biggest reason the NFL and NBA will avoid Vegas until the sun burns out)? The prospects would make a bookie’s head spin.

Hockey sells itself as a family sport, celebrating hockey moms, bringing dads along on road trips, supporting anti-bullying initiatives and sponsoring minor league teams, but the NHL has lost some of its PG lustre this summer. Between Mike Richards recent indictment for crossing the border with oxycontin, Slava Voynov spending the summer in a jail cell for spousal abuse (which could conclude in his deportation) and Patrick Kane being investigated by New York authorities for rape, the NHL’s PR department can’t wait to forget the summer of 2015. The inevitable complications that would almost instantly arise from a franchise in Las Vegas would inflict a relentless barrage of body blows on a fragile family image.

And even if the NHL is convinced it could manage the inevitable image problems (an exercise in delusion), there are still a number of other concerns that another franchise in the desert could pose (see Coyotes, Arizona-who were sued by their home city of Glendale this summer). So the next question should be does the NHL really think it should be first professional sports league to try and make a go of it in Vegas? Does Gary Bettman really want to be the Pro Sports-Las Vegas guinea pig?

What it all boils down to is that the NHL is hungry for the half a billion-dollar entrance fee, nothing more. It is blinded to all other concerns by its financial obsession (probably to subsidize the mounting losses in Arizona). Which is fine, just as long as the NHL stops trying to convince everyone that money isn’t its primary concern and is prepared to live with the inevitable PR fallout. Because at the end of the day, much bigger, much better managed sports leagues have repeatedly looked at Vegas and decided it isn’t worth it, which is why the NHL should respond to Vegas’ application with a resounding no thanks.

Shayne Kempton


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