It was in late September 1999, and Oscar Goodman, then mayor of Las Vegas, journeyed to New York to take the temperature of the NBA and NHL as it pertained to the city landing a franchise in either sport.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman received Goodman and San Diego businessman John Moores cordially. He listened to Goodman’s spiel about how bringing hockey to Las Vegas would be beneficial for the league, even though the city didn’t have a suitable place to play.
Goodman never got his team in either league, though he did convince then-NBA commissioner David Stern to bring the 2007 All-Star Game to Las Vegas.
Almost 15 years later, Las Vegas is still without a major pro sports franchise, but the city will have a suitable venue two years from now. The MGM-AEG arena project off the Las Vegas Strip, behind the Monte Carlo and New York-New York, is scheduled for completion by spring 2016. Ground was broken May 1.
Bettman is still commissioner of the NHL, and with his league coming Tuesday to Wynn Las Vegas for its annual awards show, he said no determination has been made as to the city’s viability.
“Fifteen years is a long time,” Bettman said. “We’ve been through a recession and economic difficulty. But things are changing, and we’re aware of that.
“Right now, we’re not looking to expand. I know Las Vegas is an important city. Whether or not it’s a city for the NHL to put a team in is still to be determined. We have not done any investigating as to whether or not the city could support the NHL or looked at potential ownership groups. If the owners were to approve expansion, we would certainly begin looking more closely at Las Vegas and other potential markets.”
The NHL last expanded in 2000 with franchises in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minn., to get to its current 30-team alignment. Expansion fees then were $80 million per team. It probably will take someone with far deeper pockets to join the NHL if expansion were to take place in the next few years.
When Goodman visited Bettman in 1999, the population of Clark County was 1,321,317, and Las Vegas was outside the top 50 media markets in the U.S. In 2013, there were 2,062,253 residents, and Las Vegas was the No. 40 media market.
And while the city slowly has rebounded from the recession and the population almost has doubled since 1999, there are still questions as to whether there’s a sufficient fan base to support the NHL.
An arena is no guarantee of a team. Kansas City, Mo., has a quality facility in the Sprint Center, which was built by AEG, the company that owns the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, but the NHL hasn’t returned. (The Kansas City Scouts played from 1974 to 1976).
Quebec City is building an arena scheduled to open in 2015 in the hope of returning to the NHL after the Nordiques left for Denver in 1995. Seattle, which has interest in the NHL and in returning to the NBA, does not have an arena under construction.
“We think very highly of AEG,” Bettman said. “We have no doubt the building in Las Vegas will be terrific. But having a building doesn’t assure you of a team, though not having a building assures you that you won’t have a team.”
Bettman said Las Vegas has made the NHL feel welcome, whether it’s the awards show or the Kings’ Frozen Fury preseason games at the MGM Grand Garden, which sell out annually. Las Vegas also hosted an outdoor NHL game during the 1991 preseason at Caesars Palace, long before it became trendy.
“We enjoy having the NHL family come to Las Vegas,” Bettman said. “It’s a terrific city with lots to offer.”
But can it be terrific enough to get its own NHL team? Bettman said it will be up to the prospective ownership groups to show the Board of Governors the city can support a team.
Expect a lot of due diligence on the NHL’s part on the viability of Las Vegas as a hockey town as well as the potential ownership group.
“Whoever wants a franchise is going to have to convince the league the city can support an NHL team,” Bettman said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.