Hockey fans are waiting for an American judge to make his decision on whether the failing Phoenix Coyotes can be sold to Canadian businessman Jim “BlackBerry” Balsillie and moved to Hamilton, Ontario. This has been a polarizing issue among hockey fans — actually, it’s a fairly old issue — because Hamilton is close to existing teams in Toronto and Buffalo, and is the kind of small market the Gary Bettman-led NHL has been trying to avoid for the past couple of decades.
I have never understood that. There are two teams in Florida, a team in Columbus, Ohio, and something like a dozen teams in California … but places where hockey is hot, like Canada and maybe Seattle, are denied new teams.
At one point, Canada had eight teams in the NHL: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix. The Quebec Nordiques are now the Colorado Avalanche. The Montreal Canadians like to lick pucks. Anyway, I have always felt that those two departed teams could be re-instated in some fashion — as happened in Minnesota, which lost its North Stars to Dallas, but landed a new team in a later expansion — for one simple reason: Canadians love hockey.
We really do. Even people who say they don’t can rhyme off player stats from the 70s. Every Canadian, despite what they tell you, has worn a hockey sweater at least once. Most of us have one in the closet.
Hamilton makes sense for an NHL move. It’s in the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario, a huge metroplex of millions of people. Google Earth Toronto, and you’ll see that its neighbouring communities wrap around Lake Ontario like one giant city. There are more than enough people to support another team; if New York can have three teams within slapshot distance, so can southern Ontario.
Hamilton did once have a major-league team: on TV. A short-lived Canadian series called Power Play, which aired in the late 1990s, was a brilliant look at how the league operates. My favourite moment saw the team, called the Steelheads, in danger of being sold and moved to Texas; its owner appealed for federal government aid, and got it. However, because of the name of the team, the organization was taken over by the federal Ministry of Fisheries. Comedy gold, I tell you. Also, it starred that guy who married Tori Spelling.
If the team is going to move, Hamilton’s the place and Balsillie’s the owner. The court may order him to pay the league millions — maybe $100 million or more — in compensation to Toronto and Buffalo for the impact the move would have on their markets, but he can handle that. For a guy like Jim, $100 million is pocket change. Because here’s the thing: He cares about hockey. He plays hockey. He doesn’t want to buy a team because it’s an investment. In fact, he’s sure to lose money, particularly once he takes on the challenge of upgrading the aging Copps Coliseum in Hamilton (a major sticking point for the league, which likes big shiny new mydickisbiggerplexes). It doesn’t matter. Jim Balsillie will spend what it takes to run a team in Canada, because he wants to run a hockey team in Canada. And if he can keep current Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky aboard, all the better. Gretzky’s no great coach, but the marquee value of his return to Canadian ice would sell the place out every home game.
Balsillie has been denied teams before. His attempts to buy other struggling franchises, like Nashville — and why the puck is there a hockey team in Nashville, anyway? That’s just stupid — were blocked by the league. This time, everyone should look at what’s best for hockey, for the fans, and for the league, and go with it.
As for what to call the team, here’re some ideas I had last year when the words “Balsillie” “Toronto” and “Expansion” were being tossed around.
Here’s a look at Power Play: