In a sweeping plan that would bring the NHL back to two cities, introduce it to two others, guarantee seven years' labor peace and change the face of the league, the NHL's Expansion Committee recommended Tuesday the addition of four teams by 2000.
It also urged realignment to two conferences, each with three five-team divisions.
As outlined in the committee's report, Nashville, Tenn., would be added for the 1998-99 season, to be followed in 1999-2000 by Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, and in 2000-01 by Minneapolis-St. Paul. Each franchise would pay an $80-million entry fee, $30 million more than the Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers paid in the last expansion of 1993.
A key element of the plan extends the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players through Sept. 15, 2004. A spokesman for the NHL Players Assn. said members received information and ballots and a result is expected by early next week.
The report is virtually certain to gain the required three-quarters approval of the NHL's Board of Governors at a meeting next Wednesday in New York.
"I am confident that the strength of each of the recommended markets and ownership groups will lead to a successful conclusion of this process," Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Atlanta was home to the Flames from 1972-73 through 1979-80, when unstable ownership led to the club's sale and move to Calgary. The new team, to be owned by Turner Broadcasting System, will play in an arena to be built on the site of the soon-to-be-demolished Omni.
Minnesota, a hotbed of youth and college hockey, had the North Stars from the first major expansion of 1967 through 1993, when owner Norm Green sought greener pastures in Dallas. The North Stars played in suburban Bloomington, but the new team will play in a new arena in St. Paul.
Columbus and Nashville, which rank 33rd and 34th among U.S. TV markets, continue the NHL's move into what are considered nontraditional hockey cities. They prevailed over Houston and Oklahoma City.
When expansion is complete, each team will still play 82 games and 16 teams will make the playoffs--three division winners plus the next five best teams in each conference--but the look of the league will change.
Nashville will be in the Central Division of the Western Conference with Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Toronto. Phoenix will move to the Pacific Division with the Ducks, Kings, Dallas and San Jose. In the Eastern Conference, Washington will move from the Atlantic Division to the Southeast with Carolina (formerly Hartford), Florida and Tampa Bay. Atlanta will join the Southeast the next season.
Columbus will be in the Northeast Division through the 2002-03 season or until it makes the playoffs. Then Columbus and Toronto will switch divisions, putting Toronto in the Northeast with Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa. Minneapolis-St. Paul will be in the Northwest with Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver. Teams will face rivals in the other conference only once a season.