LAS VEGAS -- As expected, the National Hockey League's Board of Governors has authorized NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to formally open the expansion process and the league will now examine bids from interested markets, including Las Vegas.
NHL owners met in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning in advance of the annual NHL awards ceremony when the matter was discussed. Bettman cited Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec and a second team in Toronto as the markets that have expressed the most serious interest, but said that the NHL has also received interest from Milwaukee, Kansas City and Portland over time.
"We will, probably starting in early July, accept formal applications from entities, people that are interested in pursuing an expansion team,"Bettman said following the completion of the meeting. "We will then go through a formal vetting process."
The earliest that any potential expansion team would start playing in the NHL is the 2017-18 season, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
Bettman indicated that an expansion fee would be at least $500 million, to be distributed among the existing clubs.
"The fact we are going through this process doesn't mean we are going to expand," Bettman said. "All it means is we're going to stop just listening to expressions of interest and take a good, hard look at what they actually mean and represent."
Bettman and Daly have been cautious in discussing potential expansion, insisting that even though opening up the process was a distinct possibility, entertaining expansion bids does not guarantee that the NHL will expand from its 30-team roster.
But the league did give prospective Las Vegas owner Bill Foley permission late in 2014 to begin a trial season-ticket drive in Las Vegas to gauge the level of interest for an NHL team in the desert city.
Foley has topped the 13,300 mark in deposits, according to multiple sources.
Foley was not in attendance at Wednesday's Board of Governors meeting; in fact, he was not even in Las Vegas this week. But it's believed the success of the season-ticket drive gives the city an excellent chance of hosting the 31st NHL team.
AEG and MGM Resorts International are building a new arena on the edge of The Strip in Las Vegas. It is being built to accommodate either an NHL or NBA team, or both. The Las Vegas Arena is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016, but it's believed the earliest a Las Vegas team would join the NHL is the 2017-18 season.
RLB Holdings Sports and Entertainment, the group planning to build an arena in Tukwila, just outside Seattle, issued a statement in response to the NHL's expansion review opening.
"Our group continues to make significant progress on the Northwest Arena at Southcenter," the statement read. "We are pleased the National Hockey League has decided to take the next step in growing its great sport to new markets. Should the opportunity present itself, we would welcome any dialogue with the NHL with regards to the expansion process."
When asked where things stand with the Seattle candidacy, Bettman replied, "I would say in Seattle's case, the arena situation still seems to have some uncertainty. But perhaps the process will bring some certainty to the arena situation. Nobody has the arena act together yet in Seattle."
Quebec City is another strong candidate, with its Videotron Centre opening later this year in a relatively small market that lost the Nordiques in 1995. Sprawling suburban Toronto has seemed ripe for a second team for years, but the NHL wants to see a serious bid before exploring the thorny issues of territorial rights in the hockey-mad town.
"Sometimes we hear from people in Ontario," Bettman said. "We'll wait and see how much of it is real. Participating in the expansion process isn't easy. You've got to be serious and have serious backing to be able to do it."
Bettman and Daly both shrugged off the idea that new teams would hurt the quality of play.
"I don't think there's any concern at all among our managers or among our ownership groups that there is a lack of talent," Daly said. "I think the level of talent in the league has never been stronger, and all clubs have the ability to have four competitive lines and three D pairs. I don't think talent dilution is a concern at all."
The Board of Governors also formalized the rule changes that were approved Tuesday in a meeting of the league's general managers. The NHL will play three-on-three hockey in overtime this fall, and coaches will be able to challenge certain goal calls on video replay. The NHL also is instituting minor changes to faceoff procedures.
Information from ESPN.com's Craig Custance and The Associated Press contributed to this report.