NHL in Las Vegas still a dream

Gary Bettman has a job, so it’s not as if the NHL commissioner was running for some political office when speaking hypothetically this week.

It just made sense.

Why offer specifics about a new meatloaf recipe when there isn’t an oven to cook it?

The NHL Awards show has come and gone, a venture into Las Vegas more for the city’s capacity in drawing players and fans and celebrities than any examination for how it might support an expansion or relocated team.

A few years ago, the idea of a major league sports franchise finally making Las Vegas home had legs. Today, it’s like most everything: broke.

Serious talks about an NHL team coming here can’t be taken seriously until those of a new arena resurface, which given the current economic landscape might be around the time Pavel Datsyuk’s great-grandson wins the Hart Memorial Trophy or more than five nonhockey fans pronounce Pavel’s last name correctly on the first try.

Do you remember the good ol’ days of 2007, when REI Neon and Harrah’s/AEG were in a race to see which group could furnish us a sports and entertainment complex defined by hundreds of millions of dollars in frills?

The mayor wanted an arena downtown. Harrah’s wanted one behind Bally’s. Excitement grew. Oscar Goodman’s pledge of bringing the city a major league franchise before he departs office seemed achievable.

Now, it seems as possible as Goodman getting the first pitch at a 51s game over the plate.

“The sentiments about Las Vegas (getting an NHL team) have been expressed to me many times,” Bettman said. “But being here for the (awards show) has nothing to do with that. For any new franchise, we look at it in terms of ownership, market and arena. Obviously, the arena would be a primary concern.”

His league is coming off a Stanley Cup Final whose Game 7 between Pittsburgh and Detroit was the most watched in 37 years. Fans are relating to hockey in unprecedented ways, a definite measure of progress since the lockout in 2004. The game and its stars are being promoted more than ever.

But there also is the failing truth of teams in Long Island, Nashville and Phoenix, of franchises suffering more and more financially while other cities are interested in attracting a team. Las Vegas might be considered a strong candidate, if not for that massive visible hole where an arena would reside.

The most promising hint of an NHL team making Las Vegas home came in a 2007 report that identified Hollywood producer and hockey fanatic Jerry Bruckheimer as working with the Anschutz Entertainment Group on such a project. It was even reported that high-ranking league officials discussed the venture. The dots seemed to connect cleanly. It made more sense than not.

Bettman knows Bruckheimer. Considers him a good friend. Thinks he would make a terrific owner. He also isn’t surprised at the theory that hockey would be the best choice as a first major sport to land here, that if there is an appropriate guinea pig, it’s the one that comes with ice.

“NHL fans are the most passionate in all of sports,” Bettman said. “We may not have as many as the others, but we have the most connected fans. We also tend to have the most affluent and tech-savvy fans.

“There are a lot of transplants in Las Vegas, and something like 50 percent of our fan base is dislocated from their original rooting team interest. Take out the economy of the last eight months, and Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in North America.

“There are some fairly affluent people here when things are good and employment is high. I’ve never studied it to know how a team might do here, but I assume once the economy turns around and Las Vegas goes back to what it was doing two, three years ago, one of the major league sports will come here.”

Dream a little then. There is precedent for an NHL team playing in an undersized arena while a new one is built, and when you consider that the annual game between the Kings and Avalanche sells out at the MGM Grand Garden, it’s certainly reasonable to believe the facility could accommodate a team for a season or two.

It really is all the economy has left us. Dreams. Fantasy. Hoping for the day when once-promising arena projects jump off the shelf and financing is no longer considered a dirty word.

“Not thinking about it for more than 10 seconds, using a temporary facility is adequate only if you know a suitable, first-class, state-of-the-art facility is coming on a fixed time frame that is proximate,” Bettman said. “You’re talking specifics. I’m talking in general. My thinking would be, ‘What’s the rush? Why not do it right?’ “

Rush?

He obviously has never seen Goodman throw.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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