NHL to expand to Las Vegas

Construction workers eat lunch by an MGM arena being built behind the New York-New York casino-hotel in Las Vegas on April 7, 2015. It's a big day for hockey fans in Las Vegas.The NHL board of governors is meeting today to vote on whether to expand the league to 31 teams. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, John Locher

LAS VEGAS – The NHL is officially rolling the dice on Las Vegas.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league’s board of governors has accepted an expansion bid from Las Vegas with the new team to begin play in the 2017-18 season.

He said Wednesday’s vote was unanimous.

“We think this is a tremendously exciting opportunity, not just for Las Vegas, but for the league,” Bettman said. “This expansion comes at a time when our game is more competitive than ever, ownership is stronger than ever, the player base is more talented than ever and the business, and the future opportunities for the business, are greater than ever.”

The board also decided to defer Quebec City’s bid, despite the city having a brand new arena as part of its application to become the 31st NHL franchise. Bettman said the fluctuation of the Canadian dollar and the league’s geographical imbalance — there are currently 16 teams in the Eastern Conference compared to 14 in the West — were factors that worked against Quebec City’s bid.

“There is no doubt as to the passion for NHL hockey in Quebec City, there is no doubt as to the suitability of the Videotron Centre as a home arena for a team, and there is no doubt to the ownership credentials … of Quebecor, which has been an outstanding partner,” Bettman said.

Joining the word’s top hockey league doesn’t come cheap — prospective Las Vegas owner Bill Foley will need to pay a US$500-million expansion fee to the NHL, which hasn’t added a team since 2000.

Back then, Minnesota and Columbus paid $80 million each to join the league.

As expected, the team will play in the Western Conference. The NHL said no other changes to the league’s alignment will be made.

The Las Vegas franchise will begin to populate its roster with an expansion draft prior to the 2017-18 season. Las Vegas will pick one player form each of the other 30 clubs, and those players must include 14 forwards, nine defencemen and three goaltenders.

“We wanted to ensure that the new team had better access to players than any of its expansion predecessors,” Bettman said.

The NHL also said Las Vegas will be given the same odds in the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery as the team finishing with the third-fewest points during the 2016-17 regular season.

The Las Vegas bid said it secured more than 14,000 season-ticket deposits for the new team, which will play in T-Mobile Arena, the sparkling new multipurpose building on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. The arena, which seats 17,500 for hockey, was built entirely with private money by MGM Resorts International and Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owners of the Los Angeles Kings.

The Las Vegas area had nearly 2.2 million people in the 2010 census, making it the largest population centre in the U.S. without a major pro sports franchise. Public support for Foley’s bid was robust, and the NHL noticed the appeal of being the only major sports show in a town that loves a big event.

Vegas is in the middle of the Mojave Desert, but it has grown as a hockey town over the past 20 years since local youngsters like Jason Zucker, now with the Minnesota Wild, had to practise on one of the three rinks in town.

The IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder attracted large crowds in the 1990s when they played at the Thomas and Mack Center, and the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers took the Thunder’s place until 2014 while playing at the Orleans Arena.

Foley hasn’t said what he will call his new team, but the bid is run by a company named Black Knight Sports and Entertainment, the same name as his financial services company.

— With files from The Associated Press and CP sports reporter Joshua Clipperton