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NHL awards show in Las Vegas prompts questions about league's future in city

LAS VEGAS - With so many images of hockey players plastered around Las Vegas this week, the question of whether the city could accommodate an NHL franchise naturally resurfaced.

It doesn't sound like there's much of a rush to get here.

Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that the three-year agreement to host the league's award show in the city had nothing to do with testing the market. There's no expansion on the horizon for the NHL.

"There's been expressions of interest from lots of markets, including Las Vegas," said Bettman. "Up until the economic downturn, this was one of the fastest growing cities in North America."

A major stumbling block is the lack of a proper facility to play games.

Harrah's and AEG announced plans to build a privately-funded arena one block from the Las Vegas Strip back in 2007, but that project has since stalled.

Among the names that have been linked to a potential franchise here is the Maloof brothers, who own the Palms Casino Resort where the NHL awards are being held this week. They also own the NBA's Sacramento Kings.

George Maloof indicated that landing an NHL franchise isn't currently a pressing issue.

"I'm sure we'll (have interest) one day, but we've got a lot going on now," he said.

If the NHL ever arrives in Sin City, Bettman doesn't think the issue of gambling will be much of a concern. He noted that the NBA and NFL attract a lot more bets than his league.

"I'm not sure that the gaming issues - if we ever got to that point - would be necessarily that big of deal because we're a very small part of the sports book," said Bettman.

The commissioner also shot down a suggestion from a local reporter that the league's Winter Classic outdoor game could be staged here.

An exhibition game was played under the lights at Caesar's Palace in 1991 and the NHL returned here for another pre-season match a couple years ago. However, those are different events than the annual New Year's Day game.

"You know, we play on ice, we've got to keep it frozen," said Bettman. "Playing an exhibition game outdoors - which I know they've done here - isn't quite the same game conditions as a game where the points matter in the standings."


POPULAR PAT: The most popular presenter at the NHL awards was former coach Pat Burns.

He's been fighting cancer for the past five years and turned up to present the Jack Adams Award - a trophy he won three times during his career.

Several people remarked how nice it was to see Burns during a Wednesday evening meet-and-greet.

Burns is currently battling lung cancer, the third type of the disease he's had. The 57-year-old has also had colon and liver cancer.

He was coaching the New Jersey Devils when he was first diagnosed prior to the 2004 playoffs. He kept the news quiet until stepping down from his job after the team was eliminated in the first round.

Burns later served as an assistant coach on Canada's team at the 2008 IIHF World Hockey Championship and remains on staff with the Devils as a special assignment coach.


FAST FRIENDS: The chance to spend a few days in Vegas has been a bonding experience for at least two NHLers.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Kris Versteeg - a finalist for rookie of the year - had made it his goal to hang out with Jeremy Roenick of the San Jose Sharks. From all accounts, he was successful.

"Oh, I got him," said Roenick. "I got his number in my phone. Trust me, Kris Versteeg's going to be hanging with me this week. I love that kid. Him and (Sharks forward) Devin Setoguchi are very good friends so I got to meet him in Chicago. He's a fantastic kid, he's had a great year.

"He'll do more than meet me."


$$$: Former NHLer Stan Mikita can think of at least one advantage that came with having the awards banquet in Toronto - his wallet.

"I lost less money in Toronto than I have in Vegas so far," said Mikita. "Of course, they didn't have any betting parlours there."

Mikita was in Vegas to present the Art Ross Trophy to Evgeni Malkin and the Rocket Richard Award to Alex Ovechkin.


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