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NHL expansion in Toronto one step closer with Markham arena approval

Air Canada Centre home of the Toronto Maple Leafs The hockey-mad Toronto market may be underserved, but the Maple Leafs aren't likely to be too happy about sharing it. (Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

It was dreadfully long, even by public meeting standards, and by the end of Monday night's numbing eight-hour city council session in Markham, Ont., nothing had really changed.

Despite growing opposition, the suburban Toronto city voted 7-6 to go ahead with its plans to fund a $325 million arena project (for more on the process, read David Shoalts' fine work here).

The result wasn't really a surprise. Those in favor of the project, led by developer Rudy Bratty and promoter Graeme Roustan, led a savvy campaign to secure the votes needed. And they saved their best card for last when they had someone with some authority finally say out loud what everyone was thinking.

"From the moment I became executive director of the NHL Players' Association, I heard of the long-term vision of the National Hockey League to expand from the present 30 to 32 teams," said Paul Kelly, who helmed the PA from 2007 to 2009 and appeared as a non-paid supporter of the arena campaign.

Oh, boy.

Up until this point, the Roustan/Bratty group had been meticulous in avoiding mention of the NHL as part of their carefully studied approach. Sure, the arena would be large enough to house a pro-hockey franchise, they said, but this was more about creating an anchor for a vibrant downtown area in a suburb that's home to about 300,000 people. It would host concerts, conventions, tractor pulls. Anything else would be icing on the cake.

But with the fate of the project on the line in front of a divided council, they unleashed Kelly to spill on the intimate business plans he was privy to during his tenure at the PA.

The implication, of course, was that one of those expansion sides was destined for the underserved Greater Toronto Area. And the time for Markham to put up or shut up was now.

"If you don't seize this opportunity to have an NHL team you likely will not get it again," Kelly added, hinting that another GTA locale, possibly Vaughan, would fill the vacuum if Markham lost its will at this crucial moment.

And with that, the loudly screeching cat was officially out of the bag.

The ploy worked, and so an NHL-ready arena appears to be on the horizon. Nothing is certain until you see the doors open, but even that, as Hamilton and Kansas City can attest, does not mean the NHL will necessarily follow.

In an email to SI.com, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was quick to throw cold water on Kelly's assertions. "Any discussions with Paul on possible expansion would have been hypothetical and conceptual in nature," he wrote. "We certainly hope at some point that expansion is a realistic option for the League and our owners, but its not something that we are considering now, nor was it anything we were actively considering when Paul was at the PA."

That last part is probably a little disingenuous. Every successful business prepares for ways to expand its reach, and the NHL has never been shy about looking for ways to sweeten the pot. Another team for Toronto would be a license to print money.

And Daly did confirm that Roustan and the league have touched base in the past.

"We've had numerous conversations with Graeme over the last several years," Daly wrote. "All of them had to do with the Markham project, not with respect to an expansion team. To the contrary, we have repeatedly and consistently advised Markham officials that any decision on a new building should be made on the assumption that there will NOT be an NHL team in its future. In other words, the decision "to build" or "not to build" should stand on its own."

Fair enough. You pay your money, you take your chances.

But by any measure, the odds appear to lean heavily in the Roustan/Batty group's favor.

The location is prime. The market could generate as much as $750 million in expansion fees. That's a staggering sum, especially in the wake of lockout-related losses (and the prime reason relocation isn't an option).

And up until Monday night, area interests have played the game the way the NHL wants it played. Kelly's breach of protocol probably didn't go over well in New York, but he has friends at the league's offices (part of the reason he was turfed from the PA back in 2009). They'll get over this.

There are other questions, of course. The $325 million committed to the project seems a bit thrifty, especially considering Edmonton committed $480 for its own arena just last week. And despite the league's assertions of having the final decision, the Maple Leafs may yet have a say about another club in their backyard.

But now a key piece is in place. And the dream of a second Toronto team seems closer than ever.

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