Paul Kelly was executive director of the NHLPA from October 2007 until August 2009. That position allows access to many high-level conversations.
On Tuesday night, Kelly revealed that while he ran the union, the NHL not only wanted to expand the league to 32 teams, but had directly discussed doing so with him.
He made the comments during a presentation in support of the proposed 20,000-seat GTA Centre in Markham, Ont. Opponents of the plan filed a motion to stop all work on it. That motion failed 7-6.
Kelly, who's been working with W. Graeme Roustan, the "face" of the project, would not say specifically who told him that.
The possibility of a 32-team NHL has been suspected for some time now, but commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly tend to discount it. There are already accusations that Kelly is only saying this because he is pro-arena. Whatever the case, his comments were as emphatic as any I've heard that actual plans exist.
(For the record, almost seven hours after Kelly spoke, Deputy Mayor Jack Heath read a quote he said he got from Bettman two years ago: "Please do not build an arena in Markham with the expectation of an NHL team.")
On Wednesday morning, Daly wrote via email, "It seems like a lot of Paul's own opinions, which we don't necessarily share. He's not speaking, nor does he purport to speak, for the league or our owners.
"To the extent we ever discussed the possibility of expansion with Paul, it was more along the lines of what our rules are, and how they would apply in an expansion or franchise relocation situation. We never had a concrete discussion on expansion or a 'plan for expansion' because there has never been one."
Daly's response is consistent with what the NHL relayed to the NHLPA during the lockout. At that time, NHLPA executives said they asked league representatives if there were plans for expansion. They were told, "No." Under the previous CBA, all expansion fees were kept by the NHL, not shared with the players. That remains the case in the new agreement.
Players, however, would certainly benefit from any increased revenue these teams created.
"I've discussed it with many owners, the commissioner and many players," Kelly said in a conversation after his presentation. "That's given me a strong sense that at some point there will be a second team [in the greater Toronto area].
Expansion in 2-3 years
Kelly added he believes expansion will take place in the next two or three years, "most likely" to Quebec City and Toronto.
"You're not going to wait until the back end of a CBA, when you will be under negotiation again...[Expansion] balances re-alignment; increases revenue streams. It adds $80-100 million US to the [Hockey Related Revenue] pie.
"Quebec City had a franchise before and it served the sport well," Kelly said. He also said the NHL considers the Quebec market "underserved."
Kelly's experience with Jim Balsillie's attempted move into the Hamilton market leads him to believe the Toronto Maple Leafs would not be able to stop such a plan.
"When I went through it with the NHL, I was told the Maple Leafs would be entitled to financial compensation - maybe over a number of years - but would have no right to block a team."
Kelly passionately stated that if Markham wanted into the NHL, the time to build "a sparkling new facility" is now, because the league is primed to strike.
"Gary Bettman could not have been more clear: he was making no commitments. But, if you wanted to be considered for a team, you must have a building and must have strong ownership."
After Kelly finished his presentation, Markham citizens were given the opportunity to give five-minute speeches of their own. The majority were not as enthusiastic as he was, to say the least.
But, at 2:50 am, council voted to keep the project going. This does not mean the city will build the GTA Centre. A lot of convincing still needs to be done. But, it does mean the idea isn't dead.
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