In light about my recent article about elitism in Canada, particularly explaining why Hamilton does not have an NHL team, it is appropriate to remember how Hamilton lost its best chance to get into the NHL in 1990. Hamilton had been hungry to get into the NHL since the start of the 1980s, the heyday of NHL expansion into Canada. The NHL and WHA had merged in 1980, bringing Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg into the league. The next year, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary. Of the nine major Canadian cities, only Hamilton and Ottawa did not have an NHL team.
Hamilton, located midway between the NHL franchises of Toronto and Buffalo had no problem with a fan base. In 1980, Hamilton, like Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg had a population between 500,000 and 700,000. Hamilton may have had the smallest municipal population but it had the best regional market of all six cities. A Hamilton NHL franchise could draw fans from as far east as Mississauga, as far south as Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, as far north as Owen Sound, and as far west as London. Besides the towns just named, the region included Guelph, Kitchener, Oakville, Burlington, Brantford and many other mid-size towns and cities as well.
The only stumbling blocks were an arena and ownership. In 1985, the arena problem was solved when Hamilton built the 17,000 seat Copps Coliseum. Its intention was obvious. Though it would be a money-maker hosting other events, the prime gain was to be an NHL team. Hamilton put its feet up and waited for the next NHL expansion and a suitable owner to appear.
In 1987, Hamilton got its first hockey reward. Most of the 1987 Canada Cup, including the final game would be played in Hamilton. It proved to an overwhelming success, with enthusiastic sellout crowds. Many times, the cameras would spot placards in the crowds, addressed to the NHL and President John Ziegler, to award Hamilton an NHL franchise. For that tournament, Hamilton was the center of hockey in Canada. It seemed the logical place to put a new NHL team.
In 1989, the waiting seemed to be coming to an end. The NHL planned to expand by seven teams before the year 2000. The first expansion would be in 1992 and Ziegler and the NHL Board were not adverse to putting more teams in Canada. Hamilton recruited a suitable potential owner, Tim Donut, headed by Ron Joyce. The NHL announced its terms, the most important being a $50 million expansion fee. In light of the recent $500 million expansion fee, the $50 million one in 1990 would have the same effect. In 2016, the $500 million fee would come across as an unrealistic price for an NHL team. Of the 16 potential applicants, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec would see it through to the end. In 1990, with the recent sale of the Minnesota North Stars for only $31.5 million, the $50 million fee gave off the same impression. The final payment would be due by the end of 1991 with the team to start playing in 1992.
The NHL received 11 bids from 10 cities, including both Hamilton and Ottawa. Other candidates were from Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee, St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Miami, and Houston. Many cities dropped out without even making a presentation to the NHL. Hamilton, along with St. Petersburg were supposedly the front-running cities. But the NHL rejected them along with Miami because the bidders wanted to alter the payment schedule. The NHL was adamant. Pay the way we want you to pay or you don’t get a team. They refused to consider any negotiations. Ron Joyce and the others considered this to be poor business sense and reluctantly dropped out. Thus disappeared Hamilton’s best chance to get an NHL team. Like Quebec and Las Vegas, a quarter of a century later, only fanatical Ottawa and Tampa Bay agreed to all of the NHL terms, particularly the payment schedule. And neither of them had a suitable arena built at the time.
Looking back, there were several other good reasons to put a team into Ottawa instead of Hamilton. Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary would dramatically grow in population to over 1 million residents while Hamilton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg stagnated. And like with the NHL franchise in Washington which bought some political goodwill from the American government, putting a team in Ottawa bought the NHL goodwill from the Canadian government.
In recent years, the wall of opposition to a Hamilton team has grown. Buffalo and Toronto want extensive compensation if a Hamilton or other southern Ontario team is created. There has never been a suitable formula worked out like there has been in New York and Los Angeles. Thus one of the best markets in Canada and one of the best arenas (Which the city of Hamilton is willing to renovate with ironically $50 million to a more than adequate 18,500 seats), along with Quebec City has no NHL team. Attempts to move the questionable Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton by Jim Balsille were doomed to failure.
But if Hamilton had been given a team in 1990, would Ottawa have a team now too? My guess is yes. Ottawa was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada and then there is the advantage of buying political goodwill. As would be proved, Ottawa with a proper arena and suitable owner would be a matter of time. But there should be eight Canadian franchises in the NHL right now, not seven. Hamilton was and is a perfect choice. But it lost its best chance to join the NHL again in 1990, and given the fact that the NHL caters extensively to its monopolistic Canadian franchise owners, a new Hamilton team is not even on the horizon.