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Toronto arena vote heats up expansion talk

TORONTO -- A plan to build an NHL arena northeast of Toronto is still alive by the skin of its chinny chin-chin.

Which should not be confused with the reality that it is definitely going to happen and that a second NHL team is headed to the Toronto area in the coming years.

I believe that one day there will indeed be a second NHL team in the Toronto area, but that’s not to be confused with the fact it’s definitely going to happen with this particular project in Markham.

It might, it might not.

The $325 million arena in Markham is still a tentative go, but it’s clear more convincing will be needed before we see shovels in the ground in Steven Stamkos' hometown.

(More on last night’s city council vote from colleague David Shoalts of the Globe and Mail).

So for now, we are left with some intriguing questions to answer.

First of all, what to make of Paul Kelly’s comments from the city council meeting in Markham on Tuesday night? The former executive director of the NHLPA is a firm backer of the plan to build an NHL arena in Markham. Kelly stressed he has no financial involvement with the Markham arena group. He says he wasn’t paid to speak but one wonders if he doesn’t fancy a role on any future NHL team in Markham if this thing ever flies.

When asked if he would ever covet a chance to work for a second Toronto NHL team, he responded: "I evaluate those things if they come along but nobody has promised me any such role and I'm not actively seeking any such role," Kelly said. "My heart is still in the game. My motivation for last night is simply the fact that it's the right thing for the game, for the players, to have a second team in the Toronto area. Without a question it would be a huge success. It just makes business sense." Markham arena project promoter Graeme Roustan told ESPN.com Wednesday that Kelly has no financial involvement at all with the project but simply has believed from Day 1 that it's a great idea.

Kelly told the city council that while he ran the players' union (2007-09) he was made aware of the NHL’s plan to expand to 32 teams with the presumption that those two markets probably would be Toronto and Quebec City (more on Kelly’s comments Tuesday night from colleague Elliotte Friedman, who also was there for CBC).

Certainly, talk of the league possibly expanding to 32 teams has floated for a long time. But it has never been officially adopted as a go-ahead strategy by the NHL.

"There’s never been a plan to expand to 32 teams," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com Wednesday morning. "Whether we talked conceptually at some point if things are going well whether we could expand to 32, I’m sure we suggested we could, but we certainly never reached the point where that was appropriate when Paul Kelly was executive director of the NHLPA and I’d say we haven’t got there at this point.

"I’d say any sports league aspires to be in a position where expansion is a good idea," added Daly. "But again, it’s got to be the right circumstances."

Daly figures Kelly is referring to conversations he would have had with the league during his time at the NHLPA, when the NHL was fighting off Jim Balsillie’s attempt to move the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes to Southern Ontario, and the rules governing a second team in that area.

"And our position has consistently been that our rules do not give the Maple Leafs a right to veto another franchise in the Toronto territory," Daly said. "That’s something that the board of governors would decide, if the board decided it was a good idea."

Which, by the way, answers another intriguing question in the wake of Tuesday night’s survival of the Markham arena project: The NHL has long believed the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t block a move of a second franchise in this area.

"We have been pretty consistent that we won’t speculate," said Tom Anselmi, president and COO of MLSE, when asked by ESPN.com about the potential for a second team in the Toronto area and how the Leafs feel about it. "The topic comes up every two years or so. If or when the NHL presents a recommendation on relocation or expansion, we will assess it and provide our input at that time."

But again, never has the NHL promised or hinted to the folks in Markham that if they built a new rink, they would get a team.

"This is probably something they’ve been in contact with us, off and on, over the last two to three years," Daly said of communication with the folks in Markham. "And what we’ve told them consistently is, 'You have to make the decision that’s in the best interests of the city of Markham on the full assumption that you will not be getting an NHL franchise. If it makes sense as a project on that basis, go ahead and build it. That’s your decision. But you should not assume there’s going to be an NHL franchise there. Either in the short term, or in the long term.'"

Fact is, as we speak, the NHL does not have plans for expansion or any plans for relocation.

"That’s exactly correct," Daly said.

Mind you, the situation in Phoenix certainly bears watching.

A second team in the Toronto area? It’s possible, indeed. But the story is just beginning to unfold in Markham.