Hockey fans who are getting their hopes up and waiting breathlessly for the NHL to return to Quebec City and/or Winnipeg these days might just want to have a chat with the good people of Hamilton.
You see, Hamiltonians have spent the better part of the last quarter century basically having their hearts broken and generally being jerked around when it comes to aspirations of landing an NHL team.
Peter Pocklington used to threaten to move his team to Hamilton when he didn’t like his deal in Edmonton. The league turned its back on a solid Hamilton bid in favor of Ottawa and Tampa Bay and two ownership groups that couldn’t even make their first expansion payments on time. And, of course, it fought valiantly through the desert in order to keep the Phoenix Coyotes out of the clutches of the evil Jim Balsillie, whose stated intention was to move the team to Hamilton.
So when this corner hears about how Quebec City is all-atwitter over the possibility of getting its Nordiques back because its mayor recently had an encouraging conversation with Gary Bettman in New York, it meets the news with a mother lode of skepticism.
The NHL has just spent the better part of the past year propping up the Coyotes and spending all sorts of time and resources in a bid to keep the team from being moved and just last May, Bettman proclaimed that when it came to the league’s struggling franchises, “We fix the problems. We don’t run out on cities.”
So let’s get this straight. The league essentially puts its credibility on the line for a franchise that has been bleeding red ink for years and has almost no hope for long-term success and it’s suddenly going to start moving franchises or expanding to places such as Quebec City and Winnipeg?
Think about it. The league did everything it possibly could to keep out a hockey-mad billionaire who would have instantly turned the Coyotes from a welfare case to a major revenue producer. It did the same thing when Balsillie tried to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. It did so under the guise that it’s all about preserving its current markets, so what makes people think it’s going to bail on other trouble spots to start moving teams to Canada?
And all the while Bettman insisted on two things – the league wasn’t kowtowing to the Toronto Maple Leafs by keeping a second team out of the most fertile hockey market on the planet and that it wasn’t a personal crusade against Balsillie. If the league were to approve a move to either Quebec City or Winnipeg, it would prove at least one of those statements was about as accurate as the lockout being all about affordable ticket prices.
Those hopeful of reviving the Nordiques talk about building a $250 million arena partially with taxpayer money, of already selling 70 luxury boxes and having a long list of zealous potential season ticket buyers. They have a robust Canadian dollar working in their favor and a local population that is clamoring for its product. And it’s no surprise the NHL is giving them all sorts of (false) hope by meeting with the stakeholders and saying all the right things about how cities in Canada might be the next great unexplored frontier.
And why not do that? It appeases the masses and keeps their hopes of getting NHL hockey back alive. More importantly, it provides places such as south Florida, Nashville, Atlanta and Phoenix with a great bargaining chip when they go cap in hand to their landlords and local governments in search of a better deal.
After all, the Penguins have Balsillie and his power play to thank for their new arena – almost all of which is being paid for by casino proceeds – and the Predators got a bunch of concessions from city hall in Nashville after they almost lost their team to Balsillie.
So, denizens of Quebec City, go ahead and build your new arena because the Quebec Remparts will love playing in that white elephant in a few years. The league isn’t about to expand when most sane people think it should contract. And with its efforts on behalf of the Coyotes it has painted itself into a very dangerous corner when it comes to its financially moribund franchises. If they don’t exhaust every possibility looking for potential local buyers when the next team goes for sale, they’ll look like fools.
It says here Kansas City will get its NHL team back before either Quebec City or Winnipeg will. Our advice to those two cities would be to accept your fate and forget about the NHL. But that won’t keep NHL operators from using those two cities to leverage themselves a better deal in their own markets, just the way they’ve done with Hamilton over the years.
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 appears Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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