HAMILTON, Ont. - An enthusiastic crowd rallied Friday in "the biggest underserved hockey market" in an effort to show the NHL that Jim Balsillie's bid to bring a team to Hamilton could result in a lucrative franchise.
Fans sporting hockey jerseys and carrying signs that read "Hockey Night in Hamilton" and "We deserve a team" demonstrated the groundswell of support in the never-say-die Ontario city.
"I'm a New Jersey fan myself, but you know, I'm willing to switch if we get a team in Hamilton," said Cody Hastings, 15.
"I really want a team. I'll get season's tickets right away if we can."
His dad, Kirk Hastings, also said he's prepared to change hockey allegiances if his dream of a hometown team is realized.
"We want a team here, we've been waiting forever," he said.
"I'm a Leafs fan and I'm getting tired of the Leafs, so I'm going to need a Hamilton team."
Tony Trudgian, 66, said he believes tickets to an NHL team in Hamilton would be easier to come by than the hard-to-get seats to Maple Leaf games at the Air Canada Centre.
"You can't get tickets at the ACC anymore," he said.
"I can't afford them unless they're given to me and I think they'd be a little bit cheaper here. I think you'd get a lot of support from Buffalo and Toronto."
With Toronto just one hour down the road and Buffalo also nearby, Trudgian said having a team in Hamilton would also create a fun rivalry between the three cities.
"I really honestly believe it's going to happen," Trudgian said.
"Mr. Balsillie's a businessman and he knows what he's doing. He's the owner of RIM - come on now."
Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM), didn't attend the rally but was still on the receiving end of the crowd's adulation, which police estimated at about 3,500 strong.
They chanted "Go Jim," and cheered as Balsillie's spokesman Bill Walker read out a statement on his behalf.
"Good afternoon to the greatest unserved hockey fans in the world," Balsillie's letter began.
"Never underestimate the impact that you, the fans, can have on this outcome. Already you have proven how strong the Hamilton hockey market is."
Balsillie's letter went on to note that Hamilton had an NHL team, the Tigers, in the last century and they were in first place in the 1924-25 season with a 19-10-1 record.
"(That) proves that Hamilton is a winning hockey town," Balsillie said in his letter.
"Unfortunately after the 1925 season the team moved to New York City ... Eighty-four years later, I believe it's time that Hamilton got its NHL team back and I want to be the one to do that."
Terry Whitehead, chairman of the city's NHL steering committee, said southern Ontario is the "biggest underserved hockey market in this continent," and added they are a "very persistent bunch."
"Mr. Balsillie has demonstrated with grit and grace to not only the leaders of the NHL, but to Canadian hockey fans, just how passionate and committed he is to bringing a hockey team home to Hamilton."
The rally was part of "Make It Seven Day," which was organized by local hockey fan Michelle Febers to provide a voice to Canadian hockey fans and raise money for minor hockey teams across the country.
Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the mayors of Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Kitchener have pledged their support to "make it seven."
Balsillie's bid for the Phoenix Coyotes was rejected by an Arizona bankruptcy judge, concluding the June 29 deadline set by businessman didn't allow enough time to resolve the complex case.
In a renewed effort to sell the team, the Coyotes' owners asked the judge to set a Sept. 15 deadline for the sale of the financially troubled hockey team, which they say would still allow time for the franchise to be moved before next season.
The NHL is pushing to keep the team in Phoenix and says four parties have filed preliminary applications to investigate purchasing the team and keeping it in Arizona - including Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of baseball's Chicago White Sox and the NBA's Chicago Bulls.
But the Coyotes say Balsillie's US$212.5-million bid is the only actual offer on the table.