Johnston: NHL progressing toward 2024 draft at Las Vegas’ Sphere, World Cup latest and more

STOCKHOLM — The NHL is progressing toward making a major splash with what could be its final in-person draft by taking it to the Sphere in Las Vegas, according to multiple league sources.

Discussions are ongoing between NHL officials and those at the $2.3 billion venue, which opened to rave reviews earlier this year and is owned by New York Rangers owner Jim Dolan.

The biggest hurdle is cost — not just to secure the 18,600-seat auditorium but for creating a production that would properly utilize the 16k resolution wraparound interior LED screen and superior sound system.

Still, the NHL is pushing hard to make it happen and sees value in becoming the first North American professional sports league to host a major event there. This weekend’s F1 race in Las Vegas will also incorporate the outdoor LED displays at the building.

The draft is scheduled to be held June 28-29, 2024, and the NHL has been searching for a venue since T-Mobile Arena became unavailable because the UFC decided to host a card there at the end of June.

A glitzy event at the Sphere could mark the end of an era for a league that has conducted its draft in a single location since 1963 — save for the 2020 and 2021 versions, which were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the league circulated a poll to teams about the potential of shifting to a decentralized draft after some clubs took that suggestion to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“We were very comfortable — and still are — with the format that we’ve been using,” said Bettman, speaking Thursday at Avicii Arena ahead of the Global Series games. “It’s different from what anybody else uses, and we kind of liked it. This was an organic proposal that a number of clubs suggested and we just said ‘We’re not going to fight it. We’ll take a poll of the clubs.’”

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Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference in Sweden. (Ben Jackson / NHLI via Getty Images)

Nearly all of the 32 teams responded in favor of a change that will likely happen starting in 2025.

“Surprisingly, to some of us, we got an overwhelming response that we should try to pursue a new draft format. So that’s what we’re going to do,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “The only open issue is whether we do that as early as 2024 or whether we push it to 2025. I think our objective is to have a 2024 draft that looks a lot like our traditional draft and then transition in 2025, but we don’t have enough information to say that’s what’s going to happen.”

A major part of the holdup is finalizing an agreement with the Sphere, where it’s believed there is adequate floor space to accommodate tables for the staff of 32 teams, plus a draft stage.

In the event the NHL ends up holding the draft in Las Vegas, it is expected to stage its awards show in Los Angeles earlier that week, according to league sources.

World Cup and Olympics update

As the NHL tries to reestablish a robust calendar of international best-on-best events, expect the tournament being planned for February 2025 to be a scaled-down version of a traditional World Cup.

While negotiations between the league and NHL Players’ Association remain ongoing about the exact format for that event, it won’t feature eight teams like the 2016 World Cup of Hockey did.

Bettman cited three reasons that the league has been stalled in its ability to pull off an international hockey event in recent years: The COVID-19 pandemic, a change in leadership at the NHLPA from Don Fehr to Marty Walsh this year and “the political climate in the world in terms of how some countries are interacting with others.”

To that end, it’s believed that Russian players won’t be included in the event being discussed for February 2025.

Several high-profile NHL players have spoken out publicly about the long wait for a return to best-on-best competition. In September, Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid told The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman: “I’m never going to lighten up on the best-on-best issue. It’s something that I feel very strongly about.”



McDavid longs to play in more best-on-best tournaments

“You’ve heard us talk about a World Cup for longer than you wanted to hear it and we wanted to be talking about it,” Bettman said Thursday.

The ultimate goal is to create a predictable calendar of international events.

“We’re hoping to have an international tournament in February 2025,” Daly said. “We’re working with the Players’ Association on the construct of that. Then, after that, we would like to be in a regular rotation between the Olympics and the World Cup every other year. One or the other.

“That obviously involves us having an agreement to go to Milan (in 2026), and that is still a work in progress. It’s something that all parties are aligned in terms of trying to make happen.

“Hopefully, in the next couple months, we’ll have a good understanding of where we are on that.”

Global Series future

This is the 13th season that the NHL has held regular-season games outside of North America and the first time it has brought four teams to the same city.

While plans are still being finalized for 2024-25, the NHL has held discussions about returning to a two-team model at Nokia Arena in Tampere, Finland, according to league sources.

As for this week’s series of four games in four days at Avicii Arena, Bettman acknowledged that there was some initial trepidation over whether that was too much for one market to bear. The crowd for Thursday’s Red Wings–Senators game was solid and enthusiastic, but a top section on one side of the arena was curtained off.

“We’re going to keep looking at what we do, making adjustments where we think we can improve and, when the interest is there, if we can do something even bigger and bolder, we’ll consider that as well,” Bettman said. “To bring four games here on four consecutive nights and have them sell out, we thought about whether or not that was something that made sense and was practical, and it turned out that it was.”

Neck guards

The discussion around cut-proof neck protection continues following the tragic death of former NHLer Adam Johnson in England last month.

Bettman’s stance on the issue couldn’t be any clearer.

“When my son was playing high school hockey, he came off the ice from a practice and said the coach said neck guards are voluntary. And my wife said, ‘No they’re not,’” Bettman said. “So that’s my view.”

League general managers were briefed on options available to their players during a meeting in Toronto on Tuesday. It’s possible we see cut-free equipment grandfathered into the NHL down the road — the AHL and ECHL started requiring wrist guards and Achilles protection this season — but that would have to be done in concert with the NHLPA.

“We don’t implement mandatory equipment requirements alone,” Bettman said. “We do that only with the Players’ Association … and it’s something that we have been discussing and we will continue to discuss. In the interim, the players are free to wear neck guards and I would strongly encourage it as a personal matter.”

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T.J. Oshie is one of many NHLers who have worn neck guards in the wake of Adam Johnson’s death. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)


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Tapping the brakes on expansion

Expansion may be on the distant horizon for the 32-team NHL, but it doesn’t sound like it’s a pressing matter.

“We get expressions of interest on a regular basis,” Bettman said. “You hear me name Quebec City, Atlanta, Houston, Salt Lake City, but we’re not in an expansion mode. We take meetings, we listen, but we’re not about to say ‘If you want an expansion team, submit your application by X date and we’ll evaluate it.’

“We’re not doing that. That doesn’t mean at some point somebody may create a proposal that we find so intriguing that we decide to explore it and maybe pursue it. But that’s not what we’re doing now.”

There are some who believe the next franchise could cost as much as $2 billion after Seattle paid $650 million for an expansion team in 2018 and Las Vegas $500 million in 2016.

For what it’s worth, Bettman mentioned that he felt teams in his league are “still undervalued,” even after the Ottawa Senators were sold to a group led by Michael Andlauer for $950 million in September.



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World juniors investigation

The NHL’s investigation into sexual assault allegations against members of the 2018 Canadian world juniors team remains ongoing, according to Bettman.

“We’re not in lockstep with anybody other than completing our own process,” he said. “The London police are going to do what they do and they’re reporting into us on it. The same thing is true on Hockey Canada.

“We’re … much, much, much closer to the end of our own process of dealing with it.”

This week, Hockey Canada announced that an independent adjudicative panel was going through an appeals process. That panel found that members of the team violated the governing body’s code of conduct during a fund-raising event in London in June 2018, multiple league sources told The Athletic.

(Top photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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