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After many disappointments, Hamilton still hopes for NHL

TSN/The Globe and Mail

7/7/2010 6:56:36 PM

For Blair Halchuk and Nathan Kellar, Gator Ted's Sports Bar in Burlington, Ontario was as close as they got to this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.

But three years ago, they thought they might actually get to cheer for a team of their own in nearby Hamilton. They put down $500 apiece towards season tickets. "They were selling tickets, I mean it's coming right?" said Kellar. "You don't sell tickets if you're not going to bring a team."

The man selling the tickets was billionaire Jim Balsillie, who collected 12,000 down payments as part of his effort to buy the Nashville Predators and make them Canada's seventh NHL team. It turned out to be a down payment on wishful thinking. The NHL balked at Balsillie's plan to move the team to Hamilton.

The money was refunded.

The party fizzled.

It wasn't supposed to be this way when the city built Copps Coliseum in 1985 and played host to the 1987 Canada Cup - and one of Canada's greatest ever hockey moments .

But Hamilton's hopes were soon dashed when it lost out to Tampa Bay and Ottawa for expansion franchises in 1990.

And there have been other flirtations with NHL hockey, including last spring with the Phoenix Coyotes. But the NHL blocked that in bankruptcy.

It seems like there's some perceived slight by the NHL," says Halchuk. "No, not Hamilton at all costs…they say for whatever reason no, even though everyone puts down tickets. And then you see these other arenas half-full and you think ‘Why not Hamilton?'"

The NHL may not want Hamilton, but Hamilton still wants the NHL. So many false hopes and dashed dreams might have convinced other cities to simply give up. But this one keeps coming back for more - because all the rejection in the world can't shake the belief that the city would be a grand addition. 

We have the facility, we have the location, we have the market," said Hamilton city councilor Terry Whitehead. "It would be silly for us to turn our backs at this stage of the game."

Everyone that TSN spoke to believes the market is more than strong enough - and here's a big part of why.

Hamilton's metropolitan area is just 728,000, but with a few surrounding cities that market boosts to over 2 million people.

"When you look at who's buying corporate boxes, who's putting their money down to buy seasons tickets, you look at the geographic map, they are coming from all over Southern Ontario," said Whitehead.

"It's not like they are living alone in the middle of nowhere," added Mario Lefebvre, Director of the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada. "The cities around the city of Hamilton would jump into the same bandwagon. It's a very decent market for the NHL."

So decent in fact, that the NHL entered in court that a Hamilton team would be the league's fifth-most valuable franchise. And yet today, the league couldn't be less interested.

"The notion that, 'Well, there's an old building there…let's go.' I don't think that's the way you put your franchises on the ground," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

That old building, Bettman says, would require more than $200 million in refurbishments. Its proponents, however, say it's much less than that.

"To meet the business standards - meaning corporate boxes, lighting  and all the necessary rooms to generate the wealth to sustain a hockey team in the city of Hamilton, that cost came in at around $100 million," countered Whitehead.

Even if the building is accepted, some question the assumption that Hamilton is the right location for a team.
 
"Is that the right place to have a second team in Southern Ontario?" said Bettman. "Maybe - based on population movement, transportaton issues, roads, but maybe that's not the right place anymore to put an arena. Maybe it belongs in London, maybe it belongs in Waterloo."

Of course, there's another possible location just down the road from Hamilton. But there's already a team there, the richest and most powerful one in the entire NHL. That story will be told in Part 4 on Thursday.

PROFESSOR O'REILLY'S SCORECARD for HAMILTON

Market Attractiveness

Economy: B

Demographics: B

Market Size: A+

Corporate Presence: B+

Overall Score for Market Attractiveness: A-

Franchise Viability

Arena and Location: C

Competition and Barriers to Entry: D-

Potential Owner (Jim Balsillie): A

Final Grade: D+

What Norm O'Reilly says: "If you look at the market, it's very strong, extremely supportive of hockey, no doubting it at all. There's a facility there that we know needs some renovations. The challenge becomes that you have two other franchises in the market. You have Buffalo and the Leafs. So it becomes a political thing."

Note: Norm O'Reilly's evaluations are based on his own background and knowledge of the subject, transcripts of interviews done by TSN/Globe and Mail for this series and data collected from various sources including Statistics Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, Environics Analytics, IMI and Harris-Decima.

Watch for more tonight on SPORTSCENTRE, and all this week at www.tsn.ca/whynotcanada and in the Globe and Mail.

Coming Thursday: Why Not Toronto?