League, players favor Vegas franchise, or are they bluffing?

Must ... have ... for ... rec ... room.

We'll have more on the charity poker tournament at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in a bit. But first, an important subject obviously getting some play this week: The potential for a franchise succeeding in Sin City.

It's something the Las Vegas Sun asked a few of the NHL stars in attendance, with Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks joking that the home team would go "41-0" because of all the, uh, distractions facing the road team during tips to play Vegas.

But Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, as good an ambassador as hockey has, offered an interesting take:

"There's been a lot of talk about it, and usually among the players it's pretty popular. Then there's always the joke -- I'm sure you've heard it a hundred times -- is that the home team would sure have a nice advantage, which would probably bear some truth. ... It's not just a joke. It might be difficult to be as focused, but it'd be fun. There's a lot to do here, great restaurants, and I'd be all for it."

Obviously, there are demographic, economic and market considerations that trump "hey, the players like it" when it comes to these decisions; were it up to the players, the NHL would have a fourth New York City-area franchise in the champagne room at Scores.

But the NHLPA has been vocal about playing a larger role in deciding NHL markets, so their support for a Las Vegas franchise can't be dismissed. The question is whether Vegas could support one.

The timing of this debate is undeniably awkward. On the one hand, it's a glorious honeymoon phase for the NHL and Vegas; on the other, the League's current desert-based franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes, were nearly located and continue to tenuously cling to their city while some charitable new owner is found.

If the poop hits the fan and the Coyotes need to move, we'd love to see Gary Bettman justify another U.S. southwest franchise to his constituents. Even if the problems in Glendale won't necessarily be the problems in Vegas.

Plus, the momentum for a Vegas franchise, that seemed so very real when Jerry Bruckheimer hinted he intended to own one in recent years, has slowed, at least before the Awards arrived.

It's something Eric Duhatschek noted in the Globe & Mail.

Provided the casinos were onboard - and gobbled up the private boxes and luxury seating to host their well-heeled clients - then even a modest season-ticket base and the odd tourist passing through might make the financial model work.

That was the theory before the economy tanked.

With the 2009 NHL awards ceremony descending on the city tonight - Ovechkin's real reason for being here - ground has yet to be broken on the arena project. The completion date of 2010, noted in the original press release, seems like a pipe dream.

Even the talk of an eventual relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes to Las Vegas - once that team's next owners discover to their chagrin that they really, really cannot make a go of it in Glendale - would depend upon the completion of a viable arena.

That would only be the first step, of course. But there's no question that Vegas, unlike other markets in the U.S. yearning for a franchise, as a profile and a celebrity support base that goes unmatched. From KVBC in Las Vegas:

George Maloof, owner of the Palms Resort and the Sacramento Kings, would like to see a team in Vegas - especially the NHL because of all the hockey fans.

"The city has so much to offer and having a professional team would be great. (But) there's no immediate plans we are working on. Like I said, we are going to focus on this weekend."

But because we're the "entertainment capital," hockey star Jeremy Roenick agrees that Vegas needs to be a top bid if and when an expansion can happen. "Everyone likes hockey and if they built a good venue close to downtown, it will thrive. No question."

The NHL Awards in Las Vegas look like a success from several angles, but that shouldn't be a harbinger for success as an NHL city. If nothing else, as NHL COO John Collins told Scott Burnside of ESPN, this week shows that the League can take the reins on a niche event, sex it up and bring it to a wider audience; and that the players will support it.

As for its viability as an NHL market ... well, I've heard from people in the know that it would be a blockbuster and I've heard from people in the know that it will bust like a bad blackjack hand. The League has likely heard the same; privately, do they think Vegas could work?

In some ways, it's like any other NHL city: Success will be determined by strong ownership, local corporate support and fannies in the seats.

What makes it a little different than, say, Phoenix, is the tourism aspect: How many thousands of seats can be filled by those in town for a week of gaming and debauchery? When would the games have to start so as not to kill the nightlife? How do you balance ticket prices for high-rollers with ticket prices for the $2.99 buffet crowd?

It could work. And they'd sell a million jerseys with the right color scheme.

But not to end this with a thudding, obvious cliché ... but it's a gamble.

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