NHL

Why Not Canada? Final Summary

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TSN/Globe and Mail
7/10/2010 5:29:08 PM
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The 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. 

The country was on a hockey high and Sidney Crosby's gold medal goal was proof to the world that hockey is Canada's game. Yet of the 30 teams in the National Hockey League, only a half-dozen can call Canada home.

In fact, there are two fewer Canadian teams than there were 14 years ago.

In the mid-1990s, when the Jets left Winnipeg and the Nordiques said adieu to Quebec City, the landscape was very different. There was a sinking Canadian dollar, skyrocketing salaries, and aging arenas.

And the fact that no one who wanted to own those teams did them in.

That's where the story of the NHL in Canada has changed the most.

A decade ago, when the Montreal Canadiens were up for sale, there was one bidder. Last spring, there were at least a half-dozen.

And now with Jim Balsillie for Hamilton, Mark Chipman and David Thomson for Winnipeg and Quebecor's Pierre Karl Peladeau for Quebec City, well-heeled investors are standing by with their cheque books ready.

While Balsillie is not in the NHL's good books, the league has no such qualms with potential owners in Winnipeg and Quebec.

“It's quite possible that with the right ownership and the right arena arrangement, that we could have additonal teams in Canada,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “What we are looking at now is interest from substantial people who would like to own a franchise.”

Part of what's opened up this door is the rise in the Canadian dollar, which continues with flirt with parity to the U.S. greenback. And projections are it will stay that way.

“I don't see any attack on our dollar anytime over the next five years,” explained Mario Lefebvre, Director of the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada. “I think the dollar should not be part of the equation, at last. That is something that should not stop any team in Canada from being successful.”

But if the dollar did dive, teams in smaller Canadian markets would have better protection thanks to the league's revenue sharing system.

And there's the salary cap.

“You are protected against the higher spending teams, which you would have seen previously, taking some of your best players,” explained sports business expert Norm O'Reilly. “You're able to keep a team.”

So while running an NHL team remains an expensive proposition, runaway costs are a thing of the past.

For years, Canadian hockey fans have complained that the NHL didn't care about Canada, a thought process that Chipman doesn't buy into.

“I think that is patently false,” he flatly said. “I guess I can understand to a certain extent how that conclusion's been drawn by those who opine on the subject. But I think if anybody has had the experience that we've had in working with the league like we have, they'd come with the exact opposite conclusion.”

“The future of the league is to go back to where there is a big fan base,” added former Quebec Nordiques CEO Marcel Aubut. “And where is that? It's right in Canada.”

And the league's stance?

“You could look at a market that might be three million or four million people and it might have an NFL team, an NBA team, a baseball team and a hockey team,” explained Bettman. “I'm not sure just because the market is bigger, that it would be better than a smaller market that had no professional sports teams and the hockey team would be the only team in town.”

Being buried behind other major league teams describes the situations in Pheonix and Atlanta - two franchises at the bottom of the NHL revenue scale. And neither one is tied to a lease, making them the two most likely candidates for relocation.

“You cannot blame the commissioner of the NHL - he'll try anything to keep the teams where they are,” said Aubut. “But at one point if it can't work anymore, I think they are going to make a move. For the best of the industry, for the players, and they'll look to where the fan bases are big and strong.”

So if there are teams that could be in play, where would they go?

The NHL decides where it wants to put teams and where it doesn't. It's clear that while the league is open to going back to Winnipeg and Quebec City, it seems to have no interest in Hamilton or putting a second team in Toronto.

“Could Southern Ontario support another team? Probably,”said Bettman. “It's nothing we've studied. My own focus has been to look at the places where perhaps we could go back to the fans who once supported us before going to some place new.”

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