When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon at the league's Board of Governors meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., a major topic of discussion was the prospect of expanding the number of franchises. As is his wont, Bettman spoke cautiously, but – just as he refused to rule out the possibility a fight could lead to an automatic ejection for NHLers in a conversation with me Sunday – he also didn't dismiss the chances the number of NHL teams could increase in the relative near-future.
"Everybody needs to slow down," Bettman told the assembled media throng. Yet he still admitted what the hockey world has known for months, if not years. "We're getting lots of expressions of interest, and no decisions have been made to do anything other than listen...We haven't embarked on a formal expansion process, but when people want to talk to us, we listen."
If you listen closely, you can hear Bettman parsing his words like a fine gardener of verbal foliage. The key words there are "formal expansion process". But just because league owners haven't discussed it officially in the boardroom doesn't mean they haven't done so unofficially in the hotel bar or on the golf course.
The way many people see it, with the NHL's new and massive Canadian TV rights deal and a long-term, owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement in place, there's never been a better time to be an NHL owner. It's the reason why, when Bettman steps up to the podium sometime in the next few years and announces two new franchises – for Quebec City, for Seattle, or for Southern Ontario – nobody will be taken aback by the news.
Simply put, the NHL would be foolish to turn away the expansion interest. It makes sense for the league in that gigantic expansion fees for the new teams will go directly into owners' pockets without the players seeing Cent One; it makes sense for the NHLPA in that there will be 46 new jobs for players; and it makes sense for TV, because fans crave the game at unheard-of levels – and because in the vast modern TV wasteland, sports properties deliver the last remaining vestige of traditional TV-watching. More teams means more content means more eyeballs for advertisers.
So whether Bettman and the league are willing to publicly engage expansion ideas, it has no bearing on what's happening behind the scenes. And behind the scenes, there's plenty of action, plenty of smoke, and the expectation of eventual fire.