NHL Meetings : Decision on Expansion to Come in December

Times Staff Writer

The National Hockey League Board of Governors will decide whether to expand in their December meeting, league President John Ziegler said Monday.

But the league will not decide details such as when and where until a later date, he said.

Ziegler, in a wrap-up session at this week's annual congress, also reported on the status of two tours planned with the Soviet Union and defended the strategy behind the league's television contract with SportsChannel America.

The board also voted to approve the transfer in ownership of the Hartford Whalers.

King owner Bruce McNall, a member of the NHL's expansion committee, said the committee will be ready to inform the board in September whether it will have a recommendation for the December meetings.

Ziegler said in Toronto last April that he expected the league to expand by two or three teams in the near future. He said Monday that that was an opinion, and not an official endorsement.

"I thought it was time that I should express a personal opinion," Ziegler said. "I believe that the momentum is in that direction . . . my discussions with owners show a clear commitment to growth. . . . I thought the issue of expansion would be considered favorably."

Ziegler said Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Anaheim, Dallas and Houston have expressed interest in starting a franchise. He also said there was interest from the Soviets and the Swedes.

Milwaukee has probably as good a chance as any of getting one of possibly three franchises, although San Jose has been most visible in its lobbying efforts at these meetings. San Jose is also believed to have a good chance.

Milwaukee has an impressive new NHL-sized arena that is home to the Admirals, an International Hockey League team that is the affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.

The Admirals are looking for a new coach, and former King coach Robbie Ftorek has been mentioned as a candidate.

The Calgary Flames and the Washington Capitals will be playing exhibition games this fall in the Soviet Union--in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Riga. Four Soviet teams will play in the United States against all 21 NHL teams in December.

Ziegler is confident that both tours will take place, but there have been glitches.

Travel plans for the trip to the Soviet Union have hit similar obstacles that caused the proposed USC-Illinois football game in Moscow to be moved back to the United States.

"I think we're entrapped in the kind of bureaucracy that Mr. (Mikhail) Gorbachev is trying to cut down," Ziegler said. "The problems are with the charters and tours we're trying to arrange for the fans. The teams are 99% set."

The Soviets have indicated that they do not want to play at Buffalo because of their displeasure over the defection of their star, Alexander Mogilny, who hopes to play for the Sabres.

In defending the league's choice of SportsChannel over ESPN this time last year--a decision that left many areas, including Los Angeles, with blanks on many hockey nights--Ziegler said: "We can't prove it, but we are absolutely convinced that we doubled our viewership by sending telecasts into homes interested in hockey."

The idea, he said, is to broadcast to areas where the TV will be tuned to the game.

He said that when the league voted for SportsChannel over ESPN last year, SportsChannel planned to be in 10 to 12 million homes by the end of the season. They made it to 8.5, possibly 9 million.

"We still have some gaps where we are not in markets where hockey is known," Ziegler said. "SportsChannel knows this is a high priority for us, and it's a high priority for them."

There are two years left on the SportsChannel contract in the United States. Ziegler said the league went with a short-term contract because of the changing state of the cable TV market. He said when it comes time to negotiate again, the NHL will have at least two strong competitors bidding for national rights.

As trade rumors bounced around and theories about the signing of free agents were discussed, the level of Bernie Nicholls' recent contract, reported at $750,000 a year, was becoming a measuring stick. McNall was accused of upsetting the league's pay scale.

But McNall said the figures on Nicholls' salary were misleading. He said that it could be quoted in the "700 range" if all possible bonuses and incentives were figured in and if deferred money was not discounted to present value.

McNall, however, declined to put a number on the contract that would not be misleading. Asked if it had to be more than $600,000 a year--because that is the reported figure on Dave Taylor's contract and Nicholls has indicated that his salary is now second only to Wayne Gretzky's--McNall said that figures reported on Taylor have been misleading, too.

"The salaries I think are out of line are the salaries and signing bonuses going to some of the rookies," McNall said. "Based on those salaries, Wayne Gretzky is the most underpaid guy in the league."

For the ninth consecutive season, the NHL increased attendance. A total of 13,745,183 fans attended regular-season and playoff games this season, representing an increase of 18%. With a nudge from the Forum's record attendance, league average attendance went up from 14,577 a game to 14,906.

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