Bettman’s Birthday Present To Canada: New Franchises in Quebec and Hamilton

Now that the World Cup of Hockey has come and gone, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has proclaimed that the next major project on his agenda will be the year long, official, centennial celebration of the founding of the NHL in 1917. Recently at press conferences during the World Cup in Toronto, Bettman outlined several initiatives for this coming event. These include outdoor, regular season games in Canada, most notably Toronto-Detroit in Toronto and Minnesota-Winnipeg in Winnipeg and possibly more in Montreal and Ottawa. There will also be the creation of a mobile unit traveling to communities in Canada and the United States explaining the heritage and development of the NHL. Wayne Gretzky has also been named as the NHL’s official centennial ambassador.

One thing that most fans (particularly outside Canada) do not know is that the founding of the NHL was an all-Canadian affair. The first American NHL team, the Boston Bruins, did not join the NHL until 1924. So the emphasis of the celebration will be in and about Canada.

The reason for founding the NHL was a shabby affair. The owners in the previous existing league wanted to get rid of an unsuitable Toronto franchise owner and simply dissolved their old league and started the NHL without the old Toronto franchise. One of the founding members of the NHL, from the previous league was the Quebec Bulldogs, who ironically lacked the means to compete that year in the new NHL. Quebec would play one year in the NHL before the franchise was shifted to – you guessed it – Hamilton where it would survive for a few years.

It so happens in the present day that the two areas in Canada most desiring an NHL franchise are Quebec City and some sort of second southern Ontario team (for me preferably Hamilton). That is where most of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada lies.

In spite of the myths that Bettman and the NHL are “anti-Canadian”, he actually has treated Canada very well. The real reason for Canada only having seven teams is because of the greed and opposition of Canadian franchise owners themselves who do not want to share television money or have any new Canadian franchises infringing on their territory. When Quebec and Winnipeg were threatened financially in the 1990s with high player salaries, a low Canadian dollar, and not having built modern arenas, no rich Canadian stepped forward to save the franchises. Quebec was moved to Colorado and Winnipeg to Phoenix for which Bettman received the undeserved blame.

But ever since the departure of the Nordiques and Jets, there were strong movements by the local fans to get the teams back. In Winnipeg, a pressure group called the Manitoba Mythbusters was founded, dedicated to bringing back the Jets. In Quebec, 80,000 Nordiques fans signed a petition urging the Nordiques be revived and indicated they would not object if municipal and provincial tax dollars were used to build a new, modern arena if that was necessary.

In 2010, Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them reasonable terms for rejoining the NHL (no mention of a $500 million entry fee). These included a good fan base (no problem for all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable owner. When Atlanta got into trouble, Winnipeg was ready and there was no problem turning the Thrashers into the reborn Jets with good ownership and a new arena. Quebec followed suit.

Unfortunately while the new Videotron arena was acceptable to the NHL, the potential owner, Quebecor was not. Quebecor’s majority owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a supporter of the separatist provincial party, Parti Quebecois made unacceptable racist remarks about the NHL owner of the Montreal Canadiens, Geoff Molson, thus dooming the current attempt of Quebec to return to the NHL. In public, the NHL likes to pretend that they rejected Quebec’s bid because of league conference imbalance and the low value of the Canadian dollar, but Peladeau’s remarks made Gary Bettman’s rejection of Quebec automatic.

But the story of a returned Quebec has not ended with the NHL’s rejection of the Quebecor bid. Commissioner Bettman is not going to make a tour, offer terms, tell municipal and provincial politicians to spend nearly $400 million in taxpayer money to build a new arena and then reject the city. He also wants that $500 million expansion fee. Right now behind the scenes he is probably trying to find a suitable owner for a returned Quebec Nordiques. It is strongly suspected by the author that two current events – the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins by Mario Lemieux, and the unexpected resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche – are part of Bettman’s plan to build an ownership group for a returned Nordiques fronted by suitable French Canadians.

This dovetails nicely with the centennial celebration of 2017. Bringing back one of the original founding cities of the NHL to the league would be the crowning jewel of the centennial year. There would be no better gift Bettman and the NHL could give to Canada (which is also celebrating its 150 year anniversary) than to get Quebec and its fierce rivalry with Montreal (which may have been the best in the NHL when it existed) restarted. And Quebec is a much bigger and wealthier city than it was when the Nordiques existed. A returned Quebec with a good owner in a proper NHL size arena is a sure winner, a permanent member of the NHL this time unless a disaster occurs.

But as well as Quebec, Bettman could do something about Hamilton. A second southern Ontario franchise is long overdue. In fact this author believes that the area is so good that two more teams could be added to make it just like the New York City area.

Hamilton has been kicked around enough. It was the front-running city for an NHL team back in the 1990s, after building an arena and hosting the 1987 Canada Cup Final. But the bidder, Tim Donut, made the mistake of questioning the NHL’s expansion terms and a returned Hamilton team became a returned Ottawa Senators instead. Since then it has made repeated bids for a franchise and then endured the Phoenix Coyote heartbreak.

Hamilton’s current arena seats 17,000, but the city council was willing to spend $50 million to update the arena to an NHL acceptable 18,500 if the Coyotes became their team. If the NHL can accept the 15,000 seat Winnipeg Arena, it should not have any problem accepting Hamilton.

The main stumbling block is that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres do not want another team muscling into their territory. But if New York-New York-New Jersey and Los Angeles-Anaheim and all the shared market teams of the other three professional leagues can find suitable compensation, then so can this situation.

Returned Quebec and Hamilton franchises would be a fitting climax of the 2017 NHL Centennial Celebrations. It would also get most of Commissioner Bettman’s Canadian critics off his back for at least ten years until Saskatchewan and Montreal ask for new franchises. The early NHL years saw Quebec and Hamilton teams. After 100 years it would be fitting to see them again.

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