Elliott: Why a Vegas-Florida Stanley Cup Final is a realization of NHL’s Sun Belt-driven dreams

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The NHL’s landscape began to shift dramatically when the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks debuted as expansion teams in the 1993-94 season.

The newcomers embodied themes that would recur throughout Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure: attracting corporate owners — Blockbuster for the Panthers and Disney for the Ducks — and migrating toward the booming U.S. Sunbelt. Adding outposts in Anaheim, inspired by the interest Wayne Gretzky generated with the Kings, and in Florida followed trends and followed the money.

The Panthers and Ducks each paid an expansion fee of $50 million and their addition brought the NHL’s roster to 26 teams. By 2000 there were 30 teams, five times the “Original Six” lineup that existed from 1942 until 1967. Bettman moved pieces around a geographical chessboard, too, overseeing the Quebec Nordiques’ move to Denver and the Winnipeg Jets’ exodus to Arizona, where they’re still searching for stability.

Fast forward to 2016. Blockbuster was long gone and Disney had sold the Ducks in 2005, but Bettman boldly expanded his vision by making the NHL the first major pro sports league to operate a team in Las Vegas.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman blows on a duck call with Michael Eisner, Bruce McNall and Jack Lindquist.

From left, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHL Board of Governors chairman Bruce McNall and Mighty Ducks chairman Jack Lindquist blow on duck calls at a news conference announcing the name of the new Anaheim franchise in March 1993.

(Doug Pizac / Associated Press)

Businessman Bill Foley led a group that paid a franchise fee of $500 million, and for that they got the most favorable expansion terms the NHL ever concocted. The inaugural Vegas Golden Knights were a sensation, reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup Final while entertaining fans with Elvis impersonators (Elvi?) and over-the-top spectacles that are perfect for an over-the-top city. Their success eased the way for expansion in Seattle for 2021-22, with a group that includes prominent Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer. To become the NHL’s 32nd team, the Kraken group paid $650 million.

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This season’s Stanley Cup Final, which begins Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with the Golden Knights playing host to Florida, is the ultimate realization of Bettman’s Sun Belt-driven dreams.

It was inevitable, given that 25 of the NHL’s teams are located in the U.S. Having the southernmost Cup Final take place four months after Bettman celebrated his 30th year in office underscores how much he has changed the NHL, to the disgust of traditionalists who blame him for Canadian teams’ three-decade Cup drought, but to the delight of fans who can wear flip-flops and shorts to games and are as passionate as their bundled-up counterparts.

“It’s more about the footprint. You do better in terms of interest at all levels of the game where you have franchises,” Bettman, who will turn 71 on Friday, said last week when he was honored by the Sports Business Journal with its lifetime achievement award.

“Creating a more national footprint, both in Canada and in the U.S., is important for growing the game.”

Part of increasing that footprint means having teams in big TV markets. That’s the main reason Bettman has kept the Coyotes in the Phoenix area, and why it’s unlikely he will give Quebec City a second NHL chance. The Cup Final will be televised in the U.S. on TNT, another offshoot of Bettman’s drive to increase revenues, which raises franchise values and makes happy campers of his bosses, the club owners.

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“Some markets will always be bigger than others, but to me it’s more about the game and how entertaining it is,” Bettman said of the absence of so-called traditional hockey cities in the late stages of the playoffs.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman during a news conference before a game between Anaheim and Seattle on March 30 in Seattle.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference before a game between the Anaheim Ducks and the Seattle Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena on March 30 in Seattle.

(Jason Redmond / Associated Press)

Although the Panthers and Golden Knights are from newer markets, they reached the Final the old-fashioned way: They earned it.

The eighth-seeded Panthers beat the top-ranked Boston Bruins and No. 2 Toronto Maple Leafs — both Original Six bastions — before sweeping Carolina, descendants of the Hartford Whalers. Vegas, which missed the playoffs last season, was the top seed in the West and beat the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton and Dallas. This Final will produce a first-time Cup winner: In their previous appearances, Vegas lost to Washington in five games in 2018, and Florida was swept by Colorado in 1996.

Kings fans will loathe seeing division rival Vegas win it all, but they might smile if goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was traded by the Kings to Columbus and then flipped to Vegas, wins a third Cup title. He hasn’t played in the playoffs but he backed up Aidan Hill in the last three games of the second round and all six games in the West final against Dallas. Alec Martinez, Michael Amadio and Brayden McNabb also are former Kings; the Ducks are represented by William Karlsson and Shea Theodore. Known as the “Golden Misfits” when they unexpectedly reached the Final in 2018, these Golden Knights aren’t just along for the crazy ride this time.

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The Panthers barely made it into the playoffs in the East, but they’ve proved they belong. Matthew Tkachuk, acquired in a trade with Calgary last summer, scored a career-best 109 points during the season and has followed that up with nine goals and 21 points in 16 postseason games. That includes a quadruple-overtime goal against Carolina, and another overtime goal merely two minutes into sudden-death play.

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky wasn’t Florida’s starter when the playoffs began, but it’s difficult to picture them without him and his 11-2 record, 2.21 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. Bob, as he’s affectionately known, has established himself as a top candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the most valuable player in the playoffs.

Between the Panthers, who play in Sunrise, and the Miami Heat, who will face Denver for the NBA title about 35 miles away, South Florida has become a winter sports haven. The Sunbelt is having its hockey moment.

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