NEW YORK (AP) - The NHL is expanding to two cities currently without a major pro sports team and is giving a second chance to two others where hockey previously flopped.
Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, were the first-time cities to win endorsements Tuesday from the NHL's expansion committee. The league also plans a return to Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Each new franchise will cost $80 million.
The plan, which will expand the NHL to 30 teams by 2000, still must be approved by the full Board of Governors on June 25. A three-fourths majority of 26 is required, but that is considered little more than a formality.
Nashville - the only of the four cities with an arena currently considered suitable for major league hockey - would begin play in the 1998-99 season. Atlanta would start the following season, and Columbus and Minneapolis-St. Paul would join in 2000.
"I am confident that the strength of each of the recommended markets and ownership groups will lead to a successful conclusion of this process," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Losing out in the expansion sweepstakes were Houston and Oklahoma City.
The expansion would give the NHL as many franchises at the turn of the century as the NFL and major league baseball. The NBA has 29 franchises.
The new franchises would mean the league has grown fivefold since 1967, when it doubled in size from six to 12 teams.
"The expansion committee has worked extremely hard over the past 12 months to formulate an expansion plan that positions the league for significant growth and stability as we head into the next century," Bettman said.
Where it perceives that growth to be is obvious.
By adding four American cities, the league continued a trend away from its Canadian roots. Only six of 30 teams are located north of the border, and in two recent franchise shifts, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche and the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix.
Growing cities - particularly in the West and the Sunbelt - have been preferred by the league over Canada. Even the Edmonton Oilers, who had the league's most recent dynasty, are looking to relocate with apparently no prospects of remaining in Canada.
"This has been a very long and, at times, a very difficult process," said Craig Leipold, majority owner of the Nashville team.
Leipold and his partner, Gaylord Entertainment Co., were adamant that they start playing in 1998. They are seeking a marketing edge over the NFL's Tennessee Oilers, scheduled to play in their new Nashville stadium in 1999 after two seasons in Memphis.
Atlanta will begin constructing a $213 million arena on the site of the Omni once that building has been demolished. St. Paul has arranged financing for a $130 million arena, while a new building is about to be erected in the Ohio capital.
Columbus mayor Greg Lashutka immediately warmed to the task of promotion.
"Yes, the puck stops here," he said.
Modern arenas played a part in the selection process, said New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen, also a former owner of the Houston Astros.
"Apparently they (Houston negotiators) didn't live up to the commitments the other cities were willing to make," he said.
Although the league has repeatedly declined to comment on its selections, they came as little surprise to the applicants even prior to the announcement.
"Now we just have to figure out if Zambonis will work in a victory parade," St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman said Monday when asked how confident he was that the Twin Cities would be a choice of the expansion committee.
Originally, there were 11 applications. But the NHL earlier eliminated bids from two of three groups in Houston, and one each from Hampton Roads, Va., and Hamilton, Ontario.
A group from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., also applied, but withdrew when the Hartford Whalers announced they would play in the Tar Heel State next season as the Carolina Hurricanes.
The inclusion of teams in Minnesota and Atlanta would be the second shot for both.
The Bloomington-based Minnesota North Stars were part of the six-team expansion for the 1967-68 season. They moved to Dallas, becoming the Stars in 1993.
The return of the NHL removes the sting of the past in Minnesota.
"The NHL should be here," said Pat Forciea, former vice president of the North Stars. "The North Stars move didn't need to happen, shouldn't have happened. That's been a personal failure that's been hanging over my head for four years."
Atlanta joined the league with the New York Islanders in 1972-73 as the Flames, but the franchise moved to Calgary in 1980.
The expansion is the second massive one of this decade. From 1991-93, Anaheim, Florida, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and San Jose entered - giving the league 26 teams. Those teams were added piecemeal, making Tuesday's announcement the biggest since 1967-68.
Increasing its TV base has been paramount in the NHL moves. Atlanta - where the franchise will be controlled by the Turner Broadcasting System - is the nation's 10th-largest TV market. The Twin Cities are 14th, Nashville 33rd and Columbus 34th.
"It's an important market to them (the NHL)," said Harvey Schiller, president of Turner Sports, who led the Atlanta bid. "It plays very well into their growth pattern, certainly in television and the homes that are represented in this area that they didn't have before."
Oklahoma interests also believe the size of their market - 43rd in the nation - weighed heavily on the NHL.
"It was not a decision that Oklahoma City could not be successful," said Clay Bennett of the Oklahoma Sports Commission. "It all leads up to the television contract."
That apparently was not a factor in the rejection of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city with the 11th-largest TV market.
"Houston has the demographics and the television market, all the ingredients that are so essential," McMullen said. "But I think the league just did not wish to commit themselves to play in the Summit."
The NBA's Rockets want to move out of that arena, and Houston Mayor Bob Lanier is hopeful a new facility can be built, but there appears little chance that will happen before 2003.
Expansion applicant Chuck Watson, who owns the minor league Houston Aeros hockey team, said the NHL was very interested in the Houston market.
"But the issue of an arena was a concern," he conceded.