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Is NHL expansion on the table?

National Hockey LeagueWhispers around the league indicate that Commissioner Gary Bettman is looking at NHL expansion to 32 teams as a way to address potential new markets like suburban Toronto and Quebec City.

It’s been a tumultuous 24 months for the NHL, between a lockout and franchise issues in Phoenix and Long Island. With a new labor deal in place, it’s time for the league to start looking at the future again.

And apparently expansion to 32 teams could be part of it. Logistically, going to 32 teams makes some sense: you’d have two 16-team conferences and four eight-team divisions. You’d have a lot of new money flowing into league coffers from expansion fees and potentially a financial settlement with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And you’d be able to address some potentially good markets — like suburban Toronto, Quebec City, Hamilton or Seattle — without having to disrupt an existing franchise or market.

Bruce Dowbiggin of the Globe and Post addresses the issue in a column today:

Yes, expansion is going to be Bettman’s Valentine card to his owners after the 119-day unpleasantness of the lockout, says former NHL Players Association executive director Paul Kelly, who was in Markham last night to stoke the fire for a barn that could host one of Bettman’s new teams.

Kelly says that the league had told him 32 was a magic number, with a southern Ontario franchise as the plum. (Such a franchise could fetch a half billion dollars for owners bruised from four-month lockout.)….

Kelly, who has no stake in the decision, told us Tuesday that “it will certainly bring new business, new infrastructure and new energy, along with increased property values.”

We don’t expect any moves to expansion soon. For starters, it’s good for the NHL to have markets like Quebec City and Markham seeking a team while cities like Calgary and Edmonton debate new arenas: nothing like the threat of a franchise move to get city officials to take a good look at public funding of a new arena.

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