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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World Cup Of Hockey 2016 Final Summary

Well the revived World Cup that has been in limbo for 12 years is over and I have already written two sequel articles about its ultimate meaning plus several other articles about the problems and hopes that it has uncovered and raised. It is time to summarize everything that occurred and try and point out a path for the future.

First of all, bringing back the World Cup was a great idea and has succeeded in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr’s main goal in establishing a credible basis for taking the concept forward in the future. They chose the right city to revive it, Toronto, got lots of the NHL alumni including many players from outside Canada involved, and the off-ice activities were a great success. But they also uncovered some serious problems…

Goliath And Paying For The Sins Of The Past

All the tournament proved was that it was a total mismatch right from the start and that international hockey is now paying for its failure to improve the quality of the game during the past 44 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972. The creation of the two hybrid teams, Europe and North America was an open admission by Bettman that there is a serious gap in quality of play between the traditional “big 7″ and the next “B level” group of countries – about a dozen teams in all – and that very little has been done in four decades to improve the quality of play. The same “big 7″ in 1972 are still the same “big 7″ in 2016.

At the same time the tournament revealed that there is a new serious gap in hockey quality in international play between Canada and the rest of the world. North America and Europe were created to improve the quality of competition and finish a credible 7th and 8th. They were not supposed to be the third and second best teams in the tournament. The play of the five national teams who were supposed to be Canada’s toughest opponents was appalling. The tournament became a Goliath without any David to oppose him. Before the first puck was dropped, it was merely a matter of getting through the games so that Canada could be crowned king as quickly as possible. Canada has too much talent, is too well trained, and too well coached. Everybody else was playing for second place.

Only Real Moment Of Drama

Almost everybody predicted Canada would win this tournament. It was only a matter of how easily they would do it, and except for the play of Europe and North America, there were few surprises. So the only real moments of drama were when ex-teammates/rivals of the Montreal Canadiens, goaltenders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak faced off in the Final. It might have opened the old debate about which goaltender should have been kept and whether they should both still be teammates. Certainly Montreal sorely missed Halak when Price got hurt last year. Price won this tournament but Halak was not far behind him so the debate is still open. The hockey gods mischievously arranged this classic match-up. Do they plan to have a Montreal Canadiens-New York Islanders playoff round rematch at the end of the upcoming season?

The Sound Of Silence…

Bettman and Fehr held a press conference in which they outlined further tantalizing developments for international hockey including additional tournaments and whether to hold the World Cup in more than one city, how it should be awarded to cities in the future, if it should be played in countries outside of Canada… Everything except discussing ways about bridging the quality problem listed above which is the most serious problem standing in the way of developing the World Cup. Expect more mismatches at the 2018 Olympic Games and the next World Cup in 2020 unless the problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly by raising the level of play in the remaining six countries, and at the “B level” group of countries up to the level of Canada.

The Solution Is Below The Pros

The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the finest developer of junior talent in the world. There is a line-up of American and European boys who want to get into the league to prove themselves against Canadian junior competition because they know if they distinguish themselves, they will have earned a ticket into the NHL. But what does that say about your own national systems if you have to go to Canada to get proper training and development? Penalizing the excellence of Canada is not the solution (making them play with one arm tied behind their backs?). Bettman and Fehr should be talking about ways the NHL and whoever is running the national organizations of the rest of the  hockey playing countries outside of Canada to overhaul their junior systems and maybe even those below that level and create systems that are either modeled after the CHL or something better. The other countries have to be able to produce hockey players of the quantity and quality that Canada does. Right now no other country has any hope of competing against Canada at this time or in the future unless this is done. So serious is this problem that the very future of international hockey is at stake. The problem is even more serious in women’s hockey where only the United States and Canada ice credible teams.

Quality Wins Over Quantity

Canada has a population of approximately 35 million people placing it in the middle of hockey-playing countries. Certainly countries like Russia, USA, Germany, France, and Italy with much larger populations can produce enough players to ice credible teams to play against Canada. Canada’s vast lead in quality of play over everybody else proves that it is a triumph of quality training and development, not simply a matter of mass numbers. It is a matter of developing enough quality players in your junior system. And if Canada can do it, so can smaller countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia and the rest.

On Your Mark The Place To Start

One thing that got revealed because of the World Cup was where to begin the process of reform. Besides the remaining six traditional countries, the composition of Team Europe that played so well showed that the “B level” countries who have made the most progress are Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. Ideally it would be great to get as many “B level” countries up to Canada’s level but just getting those three countries up to the higher standard of play would be a real revolution in international play especially when it is remembered how little has been done in the past 44 years. If I want to improve the quality of international hockey and broaden its base as fast as possible, I know the three countries to begin with.

Missing In Action 1

Slovakia, a “big 7″ country was not allowed to ice a team. They had the most players on Team Europe. They have to be brought back for 2020. They can hardly do much worse than the sorry efforts, Sweden, Finland, USA, Russia and the Czech Republic gave.

Missing In Action 2

Germany, Denmark and Switzerland have to have teams in 2020. They have to PERMANENTLY join the “big 7″ so at least there will be a “big 10″ in international play for the future.

Missing In Action 3

Canada had two of its top stars, Connor McDavid and Duncan Keith not on its roster. Canada still won easily. Nobody noticed their absence.

Missing In Action 4

Where is that American team that always wins international competitions and saves the day? You know who I mean, not Team USA but the Mighty Ducks. They were noticeably absent during this tournament. Somehow this team of hacks always wins. For some reason (probably because Disney does not want to offend Canadians and lose their market) this team has yet to play a Canadian team. Instead Canada is always defeated off camera by some villainous European team. Sorry Americans, I couldn’t resist. This is called “putting your foot in your mouth” and “shooting yourself in the foot”. Come on Americans, seriously, the creation of this hip hip hurray, “patriotic” rubbish that earns the contempt and ridicule of every Canadian child who knows anything about hockey, plays at least a minor role in the illusion that the USA can compete on equal terms with Canada. Well, maybe the Ducks could have beaten Team USA.

It fits hand in glove with the other sports myths Americans love to believe in, particularly about baseball. What Americans should be doing is the hard work of overhauling their junior program so that they can REALLY compete with Canada permanently in the future. Then make a biographical movie about the man that accomplishes this. He will have earned it. Meanwhile cast your Ducks, the Bad News Bears, and other unrealistic American sports myths into the ash can.

Reason To Be Thankful For The Return Of The World Cup

Pittsburgh goaltender Marc Andre Fleury who should have been dropped off the roster along with his big contract during the off season after the job Matt Murray did in the playoffs now amazingly gets another chance. Murray got injured as the goaltender for Team North America. At least for now, Fleury is Pittsburgh’s starting goaltender again.

Best Coaching Job

The runaway winner is Canada coach Mike Babcock, and his all star NHL coaching staff who got their team to play consistently up to the standard they were expected to be at. There were no holes exposed in any aspect of team play. And he did this without Keith and McDavid.

Runner Up

Ralph Krueger took Team Europe which was supposed to be the joke of the tournament to the Final where they played two credible games against Canada. A few years ago he was the coach of Edmonton and managed to get that woe-begotten team to nearly the .500 level, but he was fired after only one year. Since then, he has switched to soccer. But if he wants to come back to hockey, he has made himself the leading contender for any upcoming NHL coaching position that opens up. He can almost pick the NHL team he wants to coach. Las Vegas or Quebec in two years?

Mr. Overrated

The tournament produced a tie in this odious category which showed why these two players are where they are in the NHL. First Alexander Ovechkin of Russia continued to show why he should not be rated on the same level as Sidney Crosby. His Russian teams have not won a medal with him as their best player. They lost to Canada after giving up 47 shots in the semi-final. Believe it or not, this was actually an improvement over Russia’s showing in the last two Olympics in Vancouver and on their home ice of Sochi where they were eliminated in only the quarter finals by Canada and Finland. This is exactly the equivalent of Ovechkin’s NHL career where his Washington Capitals have yet to make even the Eastern Conference Final.

Meanwhile Sweden’s goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist showed why he is the Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders. He was able to beat sorry looking Finland but when he played against the two hybrids he gave up two overtime goals that were ultimately the reason why Sweden finished out of the money. In the NHL, he has managed to get the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final once. They have yet to win the Cup.

The Best Excuse

Team Finland, 0-3 blamed its defeats on having too many rookies to international competition on its roster. That had better be the right reason because at least it is the most credible of excuses for a bad performance. At least there is hope for the future. What can Russia, Sweden, USA, and the Czech Republic say for their efforts?

The Hybrids

Surprisingly Europe and North America were a success but they were only supposed to provide credible opposition, not be the second and third best teams in the tournament. They certainly deserve consideration about being brought back in the future. If they are, I would make one change. I want to see Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland competing in 2020 so I would change the composition of Europe to the best players from the remaining “B level” countries, Austria, France, Norway, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, and Belarus.

Watered Down

Every time the NHL expands, the complaints pour in that the NHL’s quality is being diluted and the game is watered down. Well, Mr. Bettman if you want to maintain the high standard of your league, you will effectively address and solve the quality problem by developing the quality of the “B level” countries who have been stuck at that level since before the NHL players began playing internationally in 1972. The more countries you develop, the more of an abundance of good players you will have to not only stock Las Vegas and Quebec, but the other eight teams you want to bring into the NHL before you retire, up to the next symmetrical level of 40 teams.