With NBA expansion not on the horizon and no team expected to move, potential NHL owner groups could be forced to play their hand on any potential new arena.

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Inside sports business

Amazing how the dialogue has changed from 12 months ago over the NHL coming to this city.

A year ago, I traveled to Vancouver for a Canucks game and cocktail reception with local sports and business delegates in an exchange trip arranged by the Seattle Sports Commission. Last week, the commission arranged another trip, to Portland, for an exchange with sports and business delegates from there and to see the NBA Trail Blazers play.

From the outset, the two trips — fostering sports business opportunities between cities — were different.

Though this year’s involved an NBA game, few from Seattle or Portland were talking basketball. Last year, despite the NHL setting, hockey was mainly a curiosity — many delegates had never seen a game live — overshadowed by lingering hope of a return here by the NBA Sonics.

Not this year, when Seattle delegates — including a stadium designer, arena booker, hotel and PR firm reps, a politician, a university athletic director and some current pro team sponsors — seemed convinced the NHL will arrive here first.

And things are indeed heating up on the Seattle arena front as potential NHL owner groups are pushed to play their hands.

It didn’t hurt the hockey buzz when, as our bus pulled in to Portland, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray was back home unveiling the time frame for the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Chris Hansen’s Sodo arena project.

Murray’s “news” wasn’t much on its own.

He announced May 7 as the initial EIS release date. If you read this space, you’ll know city officials had targeted mid-May back in January.

As mentioned here in December, further EIS approval steps meant Hansen wouldn’t get a Master Use permit for construction until next year. And Murray’s timeline is indeed indicating early 2016.

Still, the fact Murray — whatever his motivations — is finally addressing the arena issue has folks chirping. And that’s good for any of you wanting an arena someplace.

For Hansen, seeing Murray again state his openness to an NHL-first proposal that “pencils out” is a call to action. Murray has said this before, but has yet to receive any takers.

So, either he knows something is brewing, or is making a show of getting out front on this so he isn’t blamed if Seattle loses the arena to another municipality.

On that front, Murray’s words should pressure competing groups looking at Tukwila or Bellevue. Whether it’s Ray Bartoszek, Jac Sperling, or someone else, they’ll have to announce partnerships and secure land and development deals. They need to step it up, since Murray practically drew Hansen a map of what needs to happen to defeat those groups.

Hansen can’t hasten the EIS process or get his permit before 2016. But he can do something about his Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the city and King County that requires an NBA team before receiving municipal bond funding for an arena.

It will take additional financial commitment from Hansen and his NHL partner, would-be team owner Victor Coleman, to change the MOU for hockey. But something needs to happen, since NBA commissioner Adam Silver keeps saying expansion is years away and existing teams are staying put.

Also, during last week’s Portland trip, it was tough to miss the subdued tone by Blazers president Chris McGowan in his address to the Seattle delegation. A year ago in Vancouver, Canucks chief operating officer Victor de Bonis practically jumped out of his socks with enthusiasm about a hockey rivalry with our city.

Folks from Seattle’s delegation still talk about that speech. It’s a metaphor for how the NHL feels about expanding here.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is pressuring Murray to hasten things. But there’s only so much Murray can do, which is why this arena derby remains wide open.

Aside from MOU concerns for Hansen, the EIS process will likely involve administrative appeals lasting several months. Hansen caught a break when Murray’s office received legal opinions that such appeals can be delayed until after the entire EIS process plays out.

It was initially feared EIS appeals needed to be heard immediately following the initial May 7 release and would delay further steps. Now, in theory, the city could approve Hansen’s permit next year, followed by the NHL offering a Letter of Intent to expand even before appeals take place.

That would depend on the league’s willingness to gamble those appeals wouldn’t lead anywhere. It would also mean the EIS survived a bare-knuckle city council brawl expected later this year over approving the vacation of Occidental Avenue for the Sodo site.

Street vacation votes usually don’t take long. But there are fears this vote will become a proxy referendum on the arena itself.

The lengthy delays that could result have not, I’m told, been worked into the mayor’s timeline for approving Hansen’s permit.

So, Hansen isn’t free and clear. But his rivals no longer have unlimited time.

Money talks, the rest walks when it comes to arenas and teams. Somebody will get to build someplace once enough money is flashed.

Talk, on the other hand, is cheap. Even on a bus to Portland filled with business types excited about how real this whole NHL thing keeps getting.