WINNIPEG – Sitting in the basement of his suburban home, amid a smattering of Winnipeg Jets memorabilia, Darren Ford gives voice to the hope felt by many hockey fans across Canada.
Framed ticket stubs adorn his walls as a reminder of days gone by. He wears a Winnipeg Jets shirt to show his support for his former team.
As leader of a grassroots campaign to bring back the Jets from Phoenix, where they have been since 1996, Ford is cautiously optimistic that the stars are slowly aligning to allow a seventh NHL team in the country.
“What we’re seeing is the NHL finally starting to crack and, to some extent, admit that the southern experiment has failed,” Ford says.
“Whether the league realizes that it’s got to make the switch soon remains to be seen. But inevitably I think it will.”
The excitement over the possible return of the NHL to a mid-sized Canadian city reached a fevered pitch in 2009 when BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie tried to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton.
The Coyotes are the most troubled among several struggling teams in the southern United States. The team has lost more than $300 million since leaving Winnipeg.
While Balsillie’s bid was rejected by the NHL brass and an Arizona bankruptcy court, and despite the league’s determination to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, many people feel Canada is still edging closer to landing a seventh team.
A strong Canadian dollar, plans for new or revamped arenas and the growing financial troubles for some southern U.S. teams have combined to raise expectations in cities such as Winnipeg, Hamilton and Quebec City.
Comments from league officials have added to the dream. In May, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was quoted in court documents as saying he would prefer to see the Coyotes move back to Winnipeg rather than go to Hamilton. Three months earlier, the head of the NHL Players’ Association, Paul Kelly, said the league should look to Canada first if any troubled teams have to be relocated.
Even politicians weighed in. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would like to see more teams in Canada.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume announced plans to build a modern arena with the idea of luring an NHL team, although the project would require the provincial and federal governments to put up $350 million of an estimated $400 million price tag.
But one expert warns that any optimism should be, at best, cautious.
“I think the NHL is thinking more carefully about the possibility of putting a team back in one of the cities that previously had a franchise, or another one,” says professor Dan Mason, who teaches sports management at the University of Alberta’s business school.
“But I think a lot of it has to do with the rise and fall of the Canadian dollar. I think the biggest risk for the NHL is to put a team back in a market where, if the dollar drops to a certain level, it just makes it financially untenable in that market.”
Because players are paid in U.S. dollars, a sudden drop in the loonie can send salary costs skyward for Canadian teams. With the dollar currently hovering around US95 cents, a team’s salary tab of, say, US$20 million could be manageable in several cities, Mason says. But if the loonie were to drop back to the 62-cent mark, that US$20 million would suddenly become more than $30 million in Canadian funds.
There are also demographic hurdles. Winnipeg and Quebec City have smaller populations than current NHL locations in Canada, and have a much smaller number of corporate headquarters able to shell out big bucks for luxury suites, Mason says.
There is also no guarantee of sellouts in smaller cities. Jets fans filled the old Winnipeg Arena when the Toronto Maple Leafs or other favourite teams came to town. But there were empty seats aplenty when less popular teams visited.
Southern Ontario has the population and corporate crowd required to sustain a team, Mason says. But Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum has been criticized by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly as being uneconomic for a modern team.
The hurdles do not dissuade fans who dream of landing an NHL team.
“Hamilton deserves a team. They’ve got the population and the fan base is huge,” reads a message posted by one of 27,000 fans who have signed up to a Facebook group dedicated to bringing a team to the Ontario city.
Another 29,000 people have signed up as fans on a Facebook page dedicated to the Quebec Nordiques – a team that moved to Colorado in 1995. There is plenty of chatter about the city’s efforts to lure a team back to the capital.
Hope also springs eternal in Winnipeg, where a new downtown arena with seating for 15,000 opened in 2004. It is currently home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
“I think (the league) is turning back north and realizing, ‘Wait a minute. It doesn’t matter that Winnipeg is 700,000 people. They have more hockey fans than, say, Atlanta does at 4.5 million people.’ We’re really a bigger hockey market despite not being a bigger person market,” Ford says.
“We’re ready here. We’ve been waiting patiently.”