Luke DeCock

NHL commissioner says no plans to move teams

Gary B. Bettman (R), Commissioner, NHL as he accepts the Vision Award on behalf of Gatorade at the Cynopsis Sports Media Awards on Thursday April 16, 2015 at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.
Gary B. Bettman (R), Commissioner, NHL as he accepts the Vision Award on behalf of Gatorade at the Cynopsis Sports Media Awards on Thursday April 16, 2015 at the New York Athletic Club in New York City. AP Images for Cynopsis Sports Me

Earlier this week in Ottawa, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a few comments that passed mostly unnoticed around these parts but could have implications for the long-term future of the Carolina Hurricanes.

The important part: Bettman once again said no franchises are moving in the immediate future.

“It would be good if that speculation stopped,” Bettman said. “I know there are places that might like a team and would like to see a team fail so it could move but that’s not on the horizon.”

This isn’t shocking news, given that as long as expansion is an inevitability, it would be financial folly to let a team move somewhere there’s an owner willing to fork over hundreds of million dollars to the NHL for a new team.

Once the NHL does get to 32 teams, the possibility that a franchise might move – a group that, given their ownership uncertainty, certainly includes the Hurricanes – will increase.

Or, to use Bettman’s language, appear on the horizon. Sorry, Gary.

As has been the case for many years, the Hurricanes’ future in the Triangle at this moment is secure. They have a great lease with PNC Arena, remain the only major-league ticket in town and, despite sagging interest and attendances, still have a fervent if dormant fan base that’s desperate to see a winning team.

One decent playoff run, preferably a few of them stacked together, and this franchise’s financial problems will fade into the background again, although it’s only really becoming clear now the degree to which the business side of the franchise was allowed to atrophy under former general manager Jim Rutherford.

But as long as the Hurricanes continue to struggle – that’s six straight seasons out of the playoffs, and eight of nine since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 – and as long as owner Peter Karmanos continues to search, unsuccessfully, for someone to take the team off his hands, the team’s future here will become increasingly cloudy.

The tea leaves aren’t hard to read. Bettman acknowledged three “serious” expansion candidates – Las Vegas, Seattle and Quebec City – and the NHL is expected to add two teams in the next few years to bring the total to 32. (If the new teams were conveniently on the West Coast, that would easily balance the two conferences at 16 teams each.)

Either way, one ownership group is likely to be left out. And that’s when things will get interesting.

That’s when Karmanos might finally have someone willing to meet his asking price, and that someone might not be interested in keeping the team here no matter how lucrative the arena lease is.

That doesn’t have to be the case, given the growth potential for the team and market. The Tampa Bay Lightning, to cite one example, have thrived since Jeff Vinik, a Boston hedge-fund manager, bought the team. Out-of-town ownership isn’t ideal, but it can work. It wouldn’t be any change for the Hurricanes, with Karmanos remaining in Detroit the entire time he has owned the team.

In the absence of any local group willing to step up and purchase the team outright – despite the many minority owners who bought shares in the team – the money is going to have to come from somewhere else.

Whether that’s someone that thinks the team can work here – and it can – or an expansion loser looking for a franchise to plop in Las Vegas or Seattle or Quebec will be the big question.

These all remain hypotheticals, and down-the-road hypotheticals no less – exactly the kind of speculation Bettman wants to discourage. But it’s still worth thinking about now, because once the expansion process begins, how it plays out could have big implications for the Hurricanes and their future here.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

  Comments