There seems to be no shortage of talk concerning relocation these days. And if any or all of it comes to pass, it will result in seismic shifts in both the geography and economics of the NHL.
There are those who are plugged in at the ownership level who maintain there’s almost no way the current 30-team NHL as currently constituted will still be in tact in the next couple of years. There are others who contend a number of things are being done right now that will see at least one franchise shift happen before next season.
The coming months will determine whether or not any of this is actually transpiring, but here is some of what is being talked about in hockey circles. Note to reader: this is not to say that all, or any, of this will happen, but it is certainly more than just idle chatter:
• That the Ice Edge bid to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes is essentially dead and unless there is someone willing to step forward to buy the Coyotes from the NHL and keep them in Phoenix, there is an agreement in principle in place to sell the team to Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who will move the team to Winnipeg before next season.
Thomson’s name in connection with the NHL in Winnipeg is nothing new. He is a major investor in True North Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns and operates the 15,000-seat MTS Centre in Winnipeg. With a seating capacity of 15,015 for hockey, it would be the smallest building in the NHL and it would obviously have to have long-term plans to increase the capacity by at least 2,000.
Even if Winnipeg managed to sell out every game, it would rank 25th in NHL attendance. But the important distinction is that the vast majority of those seats would be paid, in comparison to many American markets where every ticket, including thousands of free and reduced-price tickets, is included in the attendance figure.
• The Nashville Predators have reached an agreement with the Metro Sports Authority to keep the team in Nashville for at least another two seasons, but the deal has yet to be signed and there are rumblings Kansas City is making a serious push for the Predators to relocate there.
Los Angeles Kings governor Tim Leiweke is also the CEO of AEG, the company that owns the Sprint Center in Kansas City, a building that is ready-made for hockey and seeking a tenant. There are those who maintain it is only a matter of time before one of the NHL’s struggling franchises relocates to Kansas City.
• The Atlanta Thrashers are for sale and anyone with a hockey background would not want to buy the team and keep it in Atlanta, which is why there is word the NHL would not stand in the way of any new owner moving the team in a couple of years. One possibility is Seattle, which would give the NHL another team in the West and, if the Thrashers were to move there, allow the Detroit Red Wings to take their place in the Eastern Conference.
• Has anyone noticed we’re 10 paragraphs into this opus and the name Jim Balsillie hasn’t even been mentioned? There’s a good reason for that. According to those close to the situation, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has finally succeeded in beating Balsillie down. The chances of Balsillie getting a team and putting it in southern Ontario appear now to be further from reality than they ever have.
(And do you know what’s a real slap in the face? There’s a chance Hamilton will ultimately lose its American League team as well. The City of Laval recently put out tenders to build an 8,000-seat rink and one of the finalists is the Montreal Canadiens. Word is that if the Canadiens are successful, they’ll move the Bulldogs from Hamilton to Laval.)
So if any or all of this is true, the situation with Balsillie and the NHL was exactly what everyone suspected. Fighting to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix was not about preserving the integrity of a franchise or fighting for a league’s right to self-determination. It was about keeping Balsillie out of the league and preserving the southern Ontario monopoly for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Otherwise, if the Coyotes were to move with the NHL’s blessing, why wouldn’t they simply go back to Balsillie and tell him they’d be happy to accept his $250 million for the franchise, which is far more than what Thomson or any other prospective owner would pay for it?
Yup, the times they are a-changing and it looks like movements are coming. And as has been the case for the past 25 years, Hamilton once again looks like it will be coming out with nothing.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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