– The National Hockey League clearly is intrigued by potentially becoming the first of the four major professional sports leagues to put a team in Las Vegas.

With franchise values and revenues at their highest, expansion of the 30-team league seems as if it’s a forgone conclusion.

And NHL officials no longer are striking down the notion that expansion might be on the horizon. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Monday that, while in Las Vegas for other business this past weekend, he met again with a potential ownership group that has expressed an interest in owning a franchise.

Daly, in an interview in his Manhattan office, said he also got a chance to tour the site next to New York New York Hotel and Casino where a $350 million, 20,000-seat arena is being built by MGM Resorts. MGM also has had preliminary talks with the potential owners who want the arena to house their prospective NHL team. The arena is expected to be completed by 2016, and Daly looked at suite mock-ups: “It’s nice,” he said.

Several markets — from Quebec City, to a second team near Toronto, to Seattle, Las Vegas and Kansas City are interested in an expansion franchise. Some reports estimate the NHL could command expansion fees of $500 million to north of $1 billion, proving a lot has changed since the days of $50 million expansion fees for teams like Anaheim and Florida — and since 1997, when Bob Naegele’s group paid $80 million to bring the NHL back to Minnesota.

While the NHL’s Board of Governors has not approved expansion, most feel it’s only a matter of time because the 30 owners split the expansion fees.

With 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference, Daly said that if expansion were to ever take place, “it would have to take place in the West before it would take place in the East because you can’t get further misaligned.”

Local support is the question

Las Vegas is intriguing, Daly admits. In fact, out of curiosity, Daly queried a bunch of service industry folks — bartenders, waiters, drink servers, dealers, pit bosses — last weekend about whether they felt a professional sports team could thrive there.

“I got a variety of different responses,” Daly said. “The demographics of the market are pretty good in terms of average annual income. Las Vegas natives earn good salaries, good livings. I think they genuinely like sports. It’s a nighttime city, so it would have to be uniquely scheduled in terms of focusing maybe on industry nights as opposed to your typical Thursday-Saturday nights where everybody would be working.

“Clearly we think for a Las Vegas market to support a professional sports franchise, you need the support of locals.”

There’s little doubt casinos would gobble up tickets for customers and high rollers, but Daly said, laughing, “You can’t depend on tourists to fill your building every night — even rich ones. You really need a local fan base.

“What’s difficult on making a call on Vegas is it’s such a unique market. It’s really hard to know. The owners are going to have to be satisfied that the prospects of putting a franchise there are good and the fundamentals are solid.”

The NHL isn’t worried about players getting in trouble there.

“Look, as there tends to be in some of the warmer-weather markets, I think there would be a significant home-ice advantage [if the league expanded there],” Daly said, laughing. “The home players will know how to kind of deal with the distractions of Vegas and the visiting players maybe not so much. It’s something we would have to be careful about, but I think mostly our guys are pretty good guys. They get training in that area.”

If the NHL did expand to Las Vegas, Daly said the league would perhaps request Nevada’s legislature to take the franchise’s games down in Las Vegas sports books. UNLV was successful getting that done with its college basketball team years ago.

“It’s really more a visceral rationale than anything else,” Daly said. “You don’t want guys in the stands with bet tickets in their hands and the only reason they’re watching the game is so they can cash in on a bet afterwards. That’s not an environment you want to foster or create as a professional sports league.”

Seattle faces more hurdles

Seattle also is considered a viable expansion option, but things are on hold there because hedge fund manager Chris Hansen has an agreement with the city and county to build an arena, but it’s tied in with an NBA team, which Hansen has yet to secure.

“Nothing has happened quickly in Seattle to this point, so there’s a lot of uncertainty there,” Daly said.

In the meantime, there has been much speculation that the Florida Panthers could relocate because of dwindling attendance as the new owners recondition the market to actually pay for tickets rather than get freebies or deep discounts.

“The franchise isn’t going anywhere,” Daly said. “It has a long-term lease and owners who are committed to the market. South Florida is a tough sports market. That’s always going to be the case, but a hockey team can be successful there, I really believe that.”