“We’re ready, willing and able,” said Paul McGannon of NHL 21, a group of civic leaders from Kansas City trying to lure hockey’s top league. It’s all speculation at this point because the NHL has no interest in discussing other cities.
“We have not and are not looking at anything at this point in time other than getting a new building in Pittsburgh and having the team stay there,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
But that’s where the “what if” comes into play. What if Pittsburgh doesn’t deliver the new rink via its casino proposition? Then what? The lease on Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh expires at the end of June.
“I’m not holding my breath, but if those plans fall through I think Mr. Balsillie is in a great situation to move the team wherever he wishes to,” Hamilton city councillor Terry Whitehead, who is spearheading efforts to bring NHL hockey to the steel city, said Thursday. “And if it’s his desire to move the team to the city of Hamilton, he does have that option, there’s no question about it.”
Whitehead chaired a committee that negotiated a deal this year with an agent representing an interested party, believed to be Balsillie, although Whitehead wouldn’t say, for first right of refusal for an NHL team at Copps Coliseum.
“That agent has since come back to us and requested an extension for the first right of refusal at Copps Coliseum,” Whitehead said from Hamilton. “This extension expires at the end of January.”
If Pittsburgh doesn’t work out, Balsillie, co-chief executive officer of Canada’s Research In Motion Ltd., has several options:
-Hamilton, where the 21-year-old Copps Coliseum would likely need a face lift;
-Kansas City, where the brand-new, 17,500-seat Sprint Center is scheduled to open next October – with no tenant in place at this point. No other pro hockey team currently plays in the city.
-Winnipeg, where the 15,015-seat MTS Centre opened in November 2004.
Other entertaining ideas that made the rounds in the wake of his purchase include Balsillie moving the team in RIM’s backyard of Waterloo, Ont., or perhaps having a second team in the Greater Toronto area. Other cities that have been linked to the NHL in past years also include Quebec City, Seattle, Houston, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Portland.
The Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix in 1995 but if Mark Chipman has his way, the NHL will come back one day. Chipman, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns the MTS Centre and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, definitely believes the new salary cap NHL can work in Winnipeg.
“We’ve done our homework with other Canadian NHL teams and gained an understanding of the new economics and we think that there’s a reasonable possibility that it would be viable here,” Chipman said Thursday from Winnipeg. “The other issue has been, how do you get your hands on a team? Frankly, at that kind of acquisition price (Balsillie is believed to have paid US$175 million), it wouldn’t be realistic to suggest anybody in this community ever could. But we could certainly be a partner for somebody because we have a building.”
That’s what makes Hamilton, Kansas City and Winnipeg solid matches. They’ve got arenas waiting for an NHL tenant.
“I would consider ourselves as the No. 1 candidate,” McGannon, whose group has hosted four NHL pre-season games in years past, said from Kansas City. “We have a state-of-the-art building that opens next October. The luxury suites are already sold out.
“And the arena will be managed by AEG, an industry leader.”
That’s where it gets interesting indeed. AEG is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anschutz Corporation, which just happens to own the Los Angeles Kings, not to mention five MLS teams and a multitude of facilities including the Staples Center.
“Philip Anschutz, as the owner of the L.A. Kings, I would think would have some input,” speculated McGannon. “But at the end of the day, Jim as the new owner of the Penguins will call the shots.”
That’s where Hamilton comes in, at least in Whitehead’s view.
“I know that his wife, I believe, is from Hamilton, she has roots here and we’re close to his business in Waterloo,” said Whitehead. “I think there’s no question that the franchise in the city of Hamilton would be very successful from a business perspective. We sold about 14,000 season tickets within 24 hours when we applied for the last NHL expansion.”
He bristled when reminded that one knock on Hamilton is that the arena is seen as outdated by some, built in 1985.
“A lot of people are speaking from ignorance,” Whitehead said. “The reality is that Copps has the ability to raise the roof. It was designed to be expandable. So currently there’s 17,500 seats, but the roof is designed to be raise and expand the boxes to meet the new NHL standards.”
Some also view Winnipeg’s MTS Centre as a little small.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” said Chipman. “The only reason we’re even being talked about nowadays is because we have an arena that is capable of hosting an NHL team. I wouldn’t accept the notion that the arena is too small, we have an NHL-quality arena. We’re also known to be a very solid hockey market.”
That’s where both Winnipeg and Hamilton have the edge over Kansas City. they’re natural hockey markets.
“We’re a viable NHL market,” insisted McGannon. “We sold 12,000 tickets in 59 days after the lockout ended for a pre-season game between the Blues and the Predators.”
McGannon also said Kansas City is on Balsillie’s radar.
“He already knows about Kansas City,” said McGannon. “He’s already well aware of the option as far as Kansas City goes. We have a new building. Hamilton? How old is Copps, 20 years? Does it have luxury suites? Plus you have the whole territorial thing with Toronto and Buffalo. Here, this is blue sky. We would have nice divisional rivalries with St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Minneapolis. There’s a black hole in the middle of the country and we’re right in the middle of it. …
“We feel like we’re a sports mecca in need of a winter sport.”
That has always been the biggest knock on Hamilton, that the Sabres and Leafs would block any move there. Whitehead doesn’t buy it.
“I take a look at New Jersey, New York Islanders and the New York Rangers – they’re relatively close as well and they’ve been surviving quite nicely,” he said.
Either way, the debate will rage on until ground is officially broken on a new arena in Pittsburgh. In the meantime, other cities will keep dreaming.
“The NHL knows of our current status,” said Chipman. “It will continue to be a look-and-see approach for us, not just in terms of Pittsburgh but any other opportunities that might present itself over the next couple of years.”
Outside of Pittsburgh, all other NHL franchise are relatively stable at this point but that could change in places like Florida, Nashville and Anaheim.