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Hockey Fever: A Second NHL Team for Toronto?

October 21, 2008

The word out of Toronto tonight is that the National Hockey League is considering adding a second team to that already thriving hockey market — and that team would be owned and run by Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of BlackBerry builder Research in Motion.

The Maple Leafs are Toronto’s hockey team, and have been for close to a century. Never mind that they haven’t won the cup for 40 years — and only come close once or twice — the Leafs are the No. 1 selling team in the 30-team operation. The blue-and-white is the biggest moneymaker in the league. So why wouldn’t the NHL consider glomming into some of that by throwing in a second team?

Putting Balsillie in the mix is a no-brainer. He’s a billionaire jock, a hockey fanatic who’s been stymied in two previous attempts to buy NHL teams (and probably move them to southern Ontario, where he’s from and where RiM is based). The NHL wants Jim Balsillie. They want him bad. He is exactly the kind of owner any sports organization wants: savvy, smart, and so fucking rich he could build a new arena with his pocket change.

The question is this: can Toronto support two pro hockey teams? And the answer is yes. (I know there are minor-league teams, but it just isn’t the same, and you know it too.)

The NHL has made some dubious expansion decisions over the past 15 years. Moving into the sun belt led to underperforming teams in places like Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Atlanta and Nashville. Nashville! That never made any sense to me. I am a Canadian kid. I played hockey all my life, and still love the game. I just never quite adjusted to the idea of hockey being played in places where it never snows. Other expansions and moves put more teams in California; one wise one was returning a team to Minnesota after the North Stars moved to stupid Dallas. Minnesota is a hockey hotbed, or coldbed, I guess. When I played peewee hockey, I played for the Jr. Minnesota North Stars, green uniform and all.

The simple truth is that all the good markets are taken. Aside from maybe Seattle and Portland, and maybe Houston, there are very few large American markets that can support a pro hockey franchise. So many have failed: Cleveland, Denver (although a team did come back), Kansas City, Atlanta (likewise, another team is there now). Other teams in big markets are struggling, like Pittsburgh, which has a winning record, a superstar in Sidney Crosby, and yet still hurts financially.

And pro sports are packed with teams sharing cities. Chicago has two baseball teams. Los Angeles has two NBA teams, and a whole bunch of baseball teams, and once had two NFL teams, but now has none. New York has three NHL teams if you count New Jersey. It can be done. It can work.

Especially in Toronto. This isn’t Portland or even New York. It’s a hockey-made city in a hockey-mad country with disposable income to burn. Canada’s economy is pretty okay, and Canadians love to spend money on the things they love — beer, pickup trucks and hockey.

Now, I’m a born-and-bred Vancouver Canucks fan. Always have been. I spit on the Leafs. My kids, though, like the Leafs, as they are, more or less, our hometown team. It would be nice to have a new option. And it would be nice to have another team in Canada, where hockey belongs.

My only concern is the name. You just know Balsillie’ll want to call them The Toronto BlackBerries. And that would be on a Mighty Ducks level of suck.

p.s. I know I don’t usually talk about hockey here, but the season’s just getting started, so you might see more of it, because it’s better than soccer, or “football,” and all other sports. Really.

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