One question continuously pops through the minds of all hockey fans in Canada; what does the NHL have against our country? The strategy of expanding to the American south has been proven over and over to have been a failed opportunity because the market is not there. Americans in many of the southern states simply don’t care about hockey; arenas are consistently seen at least half empty even with ticket prices so low they’re practically given away. Despite this the league insists on keeping afloat teams that are barely treading water down there even with the league’s own money in Phoenix’s case, where the argument can be made that Gary Bettman has looked under every rock and behind every cactus to keep that team in the desert.
This is something every Canadian struggles to reconcile. Hockey is our sport; it was first played here, first developed into an organized sport here, catered to fit the culture and lifestyle of its home country, and the NHL was originally founded with six teams centred entirely around Toronto and Montreal. Since then the league has expanded and become a group of thirty with only six now remaining at home. Until the mid 90’s there were still eight teams based here at home; the final two the Quebec Nordiques were moved to Colorado where a great rivalry with Detroit was formed, and the Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix where it never took off and now is in desperate bankruptcy. These are the moves that have taken the quantity of teams in the NHL away from Canada but the heart of the league still remains here no matter what the league may try to do. The six Canadian teams consistently draw some of the highest crowds in the league and generate some of the highest revenues in a country that is ten times smaller compared to where twenty-four teams are located.
We as Canadians have been insisting another team be brought back home, even more than one as we know we can easily sustain them. There have been businessmen who have tried to stand up for Canada and make a move to bring a team back home and consistently have faced the wrath and rejection of the league. We all remember Jim Balsillie making his attempt to get the struggling Coyotes out of Phoenix and into Hamilton where the market would easily make the team one of the most profitable and begin a rivalry with Toronto that could be one of the greatest in the league. Now looking back on it with fresh eyes, Balsillie’s approach was not the smartest move for a guy wanting to be part of a club where the other members have to vote him in. Attacking the league’s credibility is not the way to go about gaining a franchise and although his money was desperately needed to save the league from coughing it up themselves, it’s understandable why Balsillie was rejected.
Now since then the league has relented slightly and very reluctantly on the ‘no expansion back to Canada’ stance. Two years of running the Phoenix Coyotes and still having the team losing 30 million each year; plus the Atlanta Thrashers’ owners desperately looking to sell, the Columbus Blue Jackets announcing 25 million in losses, the Dallas Stars in question, the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers struggling, all of this adds up. Businessmen have walked away from completing the purchase for Phoenix because the terms and conditions in Phoenix are something no business person wants. The other teams are also in markets where a business person’s goal to make money and understanding of market availability means deals are unlikely to be done there either. Phoenix looked like it was a dying dog on its last leg but there was one ace up Gary Bettman’s sleeve; the city of Glendale actually owns the arena the Coyotes play in and if they leave, that arena sitting empty costs millions more for the city. So they were willing to ante up another 25 million to cover operating losses for another year while the league works again to find an owner who is intent on keeping the Coyotes in the desert.
So what does that mean for Canada and the potential of bringing home another team? Well that’s still up in the air. But one thing is in our corner; the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers want to sell and have had it with losing money. If they can find a local buyer they would keep the team in Atlanta but none have come forward and so they are willing to sell to anyone who wants to relocate. Also, the Atlanta politicians are not invested in the team the way the Glendale city council is with the Coyotes so if the league has a problem with the Thrashers being sold, they’re on their own this time. Good news for Canada, the front-runner is David Thomson one of the major investors in True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg hoping to bring a team back home to Winnipeg. Bettman denies any deal exists and that’s probably true since that is the last thing he wants but even he isn’t able to step in for Atlanta or any other team the way he has with Phoenix. It’s still a long shot but by fighting tooth and nail Canada may get another team to call our own.
With each passing day it seems unofficially that Winnipeg will end up with a team for the 2011-2012 season despite the NHL’s reluctance to confirm those unofficial ‘speculations’. But the reality of the league’s situation in the States may force them to finally admit they see what we Canadians all see; Canada deserves another team, even more than just one but we’ll take what we can get. Hockey flows through our veins like the blood that pumps us up during a game; it’s something that we can inherently call our own, a trademark of Canada that calls out for other teams to cheer on as our own. The league’s focus may be on expanding into America but the league will never take away the heart of the game. Phoenix may be staying put for at least another year but Atlanta is running out of time; the schedule for next season already has two drafts one with Atlanta and one with Winnipeg. The league can deny a deal is happening all they like, their actions show it’s much more likely Canada is getting a seventh team sooner rather than later. Let’s hold our collective breath Canada; we’re rolling the dice and lucky number seven should be coming up.