PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It’s been a long time since Canada looked this good to the NHL.
Ten years ago, commissioner Gary Bettman would come to the league’s board of governors meetings and get besieged by questions about how the Canadian teams were going to survive. The conversation was considerably different over two days in Pebble Beach, where the league gave indications it was looking to increase its exposure in the country.
“The cycles of life never cease to amaze me,” Bettman said after the meetings wrapped up Wednesday. “Yes, I remember very clearly the prognostications by some of your (media) colleagues that there would be one team left in Canada and everybody else would be in the United States. And now, the prognostication is, ‘No, we’ve got clubs that need to move out of the United States.’
“It wasn’t right originally, and it’s not right now. But it’s part of what we deal with.”
The most notable piece of news to come out of the meetings was Bettman’s acknowledgment that the league would like to create a second outdoor game to be held in Canada next season. The NHL had looked at holding one at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium this year, but couldn’t make the timing work, according to the commissioner.
A game in the 2010-11 season would likely be played on CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada. Bettman said all six Canadian teams have expressed interest in participating in it.
“We didn’t ask for a document sworn to under oath, but in the course of conversations, I think every one of the Canadian clubs has said either ‘we want to host and be in it or at least be in it,”‘ said Bettman.
Somewhat surprisingly, there was no discussion about possible expansion/relocation opportunities for Quebec City, Winnipeg or a second team in the Toronto area. The league has recently seemed more open to talk of adding Canadian markets, as evidenced by Bettman’s meeting with Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume a couple months ago and his favourable comments about Winnipeg that were made public during the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case.
However, Bettman made it clear that the Maple Leafs wouldn’t have a veto if a team applied for relocation to Toronto. The move would only be subject to a majority vote.
“There is no veto,” he said.
The six Canadian teams account for as much as 30 per cent of the NHL’s overall revenue. Bettman also cited the strength of the Canadian dollar as a major factor in projecting that next year’s salary cap will likely remain close to its current level of US$56.8 million next season.
The country is clearly boosting the NHL’s business.
“(Canada is the) best hockey market in the world,” said Edmonton Oilers president Patrick Laforge. “Our fans are loyal, they have the wherewithal to support the teams and our buildings are full. I don’t think that’s a secret to anybody and it gets people’s attention.”
One Canadian city that was part of the discussion here is Saskatoon because the Ice Edge group would like to have the Coyotes play five regular-season games there. While some governors quietly said they weren’t crazy about the plan, none of them seemed willing to mount strong public opposition for fear of hampering the sale.
The issue will be discussed again in the future and ultimately needs to get approval from the board. The NHL Players’ Association would also need to give its approval of a plan to hold games in Saskatoon.
“That’s one of the thing that they’ve asked as part of the letter of intent,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. “It’s far from resolved. The league hasn’t committed to it, I don’t know how the Alberta teams feel about it, I’d have to imagine the junior team in Saskatoon isn’t crazy about it. It’s a preliminary thing.
“It’s not new, other teams have done it.”
Added Flames president Ken King: “Whether or not that will ever come to pass is very highly speculative. Based on what we heard, it is not something that I think is likely to happen.”
The governors are understandably thrilled that Bettman seems to have found a buyer who is willing to take the league-owned Coyotes off their hands and keep the team in suburban Glendale, Ariz. Much of Wednesday’s session was spent recounting the messy situation that unfolded after former owner Jerry Moyes placed the team in bankruptcy.
With Ice Edge, Bettman appears to have found a pretty good solution to the problem.
“I think the commissioner’s got this well in hand,” said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the board. “I don’t think there’s any money going out from the Bruins or anybody else. Talking as a Bruin, that’s the only interest that we have, we’re not putting up any funds for it.
“We’re happy with the way it’s been handled.”
The meetings had a much lighter feel than a year ago, when a pair of economists spoke to the group and provided a bleak economic outlook. One governor jokingly nicknamed them “Drs. Doom and Gloom.”
Even though the recession is hitting some NHL markets hard, there is an overall sense of optimism thanks in large part to the success of the game in Canada.
It’s only fitting then that the country get a piece of the outdoor game that has been so successful south of the border. After staging its first outdoor game in Edmonton back in 2003, the NHL has held one in Buffalo and Chicago. The fourth will be played at Boston’s Fenway Park on Jan. 1.
After that, Canada is poised to get back in on the action.
“Yes, it’s something we’re going to look at for next season,” said Bettman. “We’ll see if we can make it happen.”