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LAS VEGAS — The NHL’s board of governors has given the green light to opening a formal expansion process.

Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the decision at an afternoon news conference in Las Vegas while insisting it’s no guarantee that the NHL will add a 31st or 32nd team.

Nevertheless it’s an important step toward expanding the league. Interested parties will have from July 6 until August 10 to apply.

“We will then go through a formal vetting process, and the board ultimately will determine whether or not there’s any interest in expanding,” Bettman said. “If the conclusion is there is interest from the league’s perspective, then there will be focus on what the terms would be and who the likely successful candidates might be.”

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly added that the 2017-18 season would be the earliest an expansion team would debut in the NHL.

Bill Foley’s Hockey Vision Las Vegas is at the forefront of expansion talk, and the city is the favourite to get a franchise.

The Las Vegas season-ticket drive received 13,200 deposits for seats at the brand new arena that’s set to open next spring, according to Daly. Those deposits are technically refundable if a team is not in place for 2016-17, but Daly said he didn’t think Foley’s group was concerned by that.

Seattle and Quebec City are other leading candidates for expansion, and Toronto is another possibility. Daly said other cities, such as Milwaukee, Portland and Kansas City have also expressed interest.

Quebecor and the NHL have a relationship through a French-language television-rights deal with TVA, and the Videotron Centre is set to open soon.

“We know in the province of Quebec, hockey is a religion. We are all, as individuals, hockey maniacs,” Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Dion said. “Quebec is an extraordinary market and we have a corporation, Quebecor, who has shown for three or four years its willingness to be a major player in sports, with TVA Sports, the Armada, the Remparts, manager of the (Videotron Centre) for the next 25 years. We have all the ingredients.”

Seattle’s lack of an arena is the biggest stumbling block to that city getting a team, and there’s less certainty on a potential ownership group.

“Perhaps the process will bring some certainty to the arena situation,” Bettman said. “Nobody has the arena act together yet in Seattle.”

Bettman said the expansion fee will be at least US$500 million. Any applicants must also pay a fee, some of which is refundable, Daly said.

The NHL has had 30 teams since its most recent expansion in 2000, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined. The expansion fee was $80 million for those teams, the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators and $50 million years earlier for the Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers.

“Franchise are more valuable than they’ve ever been,” Bettman said.

Currently the Eastern Conference has 16 teams while there are 14 in the West, something that could play a role in what cities the league might choose to expand to. But Bettman said geography and imbalance are not the sole factors.

Follow @SWhyno on Twitter

Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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