Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 3: Low Status Played A Key Role In NHL Expansion/Relocation

When Gary Bettman became NHL Commissioner in 1993, one of his priorities that he was probably specifically charged with by the NHL Board was to raise the status of NHL hockey in the United States. And in tangible terms, this meant getting a much more lucrative contract from American televison, one that at least approached that of football, baseball, and basketball.

Bettman initiated a controversial policy. He would expand the NHL into unfamiliar markets in the United States where the game in many cases had to be taught to the new patrons. By expanding the NHL all over the United States, he hoped that the NHL would at least give an illusion that it was one of “America’s games”, a “big 4″ professional sport that merited an American television contract on par with the NFL, MLB, and the NBA. In addition, he sanctioned the move of 4 existing franchises from traditional hockey loving markets to new territory. These shifts were Minnesota to Dallas; Quebec to Denver; Hartford to Raleigh; and Winnipeg to Phoenix. Of the four shifts, only the move of Quebec to Denver could be said to be a move from one hockey loving market to one with any familiarity with hockey.

There have been 7 expansion teams during Bettman’s tenure; Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Atlanta, Columbus, and now Las Vegas. All except Minnesota and possibly Anaheim have been non-traditional hockey markets. In the end Bettman did get a better contract from American television, but not one that compares favorably with those given to the other three leagues. And there would be low moments like the OLN/Versus episode.

Expansion to unfamiliar markets came at a price. In some years, it was reported that as many as 10 American teams were losing money. The lowest moment so far was the shifting of Atlanta for the second time to a Canadian city, this time Winnipeg. Right now Arizona is another potential major embarrassment.

There was a bitter reaction elsewhere. American cities in the northwestern United States, specifically Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle – three sure money makers – were ignored. The shift of Winnipeg and Quebec and the NHL’s refusal to put a second team in southern Ontario, specifically Hamilton, accounts for much of Bettman’s unpopularity in Canada, even though he was probably right that the smaller Canadian cities needed bigger and better arenas with much more solid ownership.

Bettman himself is probably NOT anti-Canadian, though most Canadians believe it. He opened the door for Winnipeg and Quebec to return in 2010 and expressed regret at the loss of the franchises. And the limited number of Canadian teams probably has more to do with the existing Canadian franchise owners unwillingness to share their markets and Canadian television revenue than any “anti-Canadian” policy initiated by Bettman and the American owners of the NHL. But the “low status” problem in the United States has dictated much of his policies about where new NHL expansion teams should be located.

Would it have been better to put new teams in Milwaukee, Portland, and Seattle, cities that Canadians can hardly object to that have a love of hockey, instead of many of the unknown American markets? Certainly NHL television and attendance records might have been better, leading to a better American television contract. Some of the new American franchises have worked; Dallas, Anaheim, and Denver. Hopefully Nashville, after coming close to being shifted to Hamilton by Jim Balsille has turned the corner.

But hockey remains number 4. The NHL has made progress and revenues are up during Bettman’s time as Commissioner, but he has not solved the status problem. Right now Arizona, Carolina, and the arena of the New York Islanders are major problems. Columbus and Florida are precarious franchises. Will Las Vegas work or become another Phoenix? Can it really be said that hockey is “America’s game”?

 

Embarrassments Starting To Pile Up On Gary Bettman’s Plate

So far 2017 has been a mixed bag of goodies for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. There are some good things he can take credit for. The NHL Centennial celebrations are going well. Edmonton has opened a stunning new arena that Bettman has vowed to reward with an All Star Game and an NHL Draft. This fall, Detroit will open another one. And it looks like Ottawa, especially after its success in the current NHL playoffs will get its new downtown arena approved. And (only a partial success, the NHL wanted more expansion teams) the NHL will get its 31st team, Las Vegas competing this fall. Internationally, bringing back the World Cup was at least a partial success and the NHL has recently announced it will play games in Europe again.

But behind the scenes there are major problems starting to pile up that must be far from being stored and filed away in the back of Bettman’s mind. Some are long term and can be postponed for a while but like the Atlanta situation a few years ago, some are coming to a head and have to be resolved sooner or later. In no particular order, here are some of the worst.

1.    Quebec City

Gary Bettman made a tour of the cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, in 2010, and offered them reasonable terms for readmission to the NHL: A great fan base (No problem in all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and acceptable ownership (No mention of a $500 million entrance fee). Winnipeg was used to resolve the Atlanta mess. But now Quebec has tried to comply with Bettman’s terms and has built an arena at taxpayers’ expense that the NHL loves just as much as the Edmonton one. They expect to be paid off and Bettman was openly consorting with both the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec provincial premier while it was being built.

The problem is the potential owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau is an unacceptable owner to the NHL (I’ve written lots of articles on this blog explaining why), leaving Bettman the problem of finding an acceptable owner behind the scenes for Quebec City. So far there has been no announcement of any resolution to this problem and the longer it drags on, the more embarrassing for everyone it gets. Right now the Quebec situation has been shelved under the term “indefinite suspension”, but it has to be resolved with Quebec getting back into the NHL somehow as soon as possible.

2.    Arizona Coyotes

Bettman has fought tooth and nail to keep a team in Phoenix but it may be time to throw in the towel. Glendale has publicly declared that they do not want the Coyotes any more and has stated that an empty arena is preferable to having them play there. In response, Bettman stated that the Coyotes have no future in Glendale and need yet another new arena in the area to play in. A potential new arena in Tempe was cancelled. The Coyotes have turned to the Arizona State Legislature for assistance but it is doubtful that a financial bill will pass. There has been rumors that the Coyotes have been talking to Portland and Seattle (two much better hockey cities) about relocation. A more sensible solution would be to move the team to Quebec and then expand the NHL right away by two western cities. The NHL does not want to move any western team east because it would create more league conference imbalance but the solution I have suggested is probably the best way to resolve both the Quebec and Arizona problems.

3.    The Fate Of The New York Islanders

The Islanders play in the worst arena in the NHL with obstructed seats and bad ice, that they can’t sell out and need a new arena to survive. There is no way that the Islanders want to remain in the Barclay’s Center or return to a smaller seating Nassau Coliseum. Hartford, which is finally making an effort to get back to the NHL wants to turn the Islanders into a returned Whalers, but it would embarrassing for the NHL for a team with such a glorious history as the Islanders to disappear. The best hope for the Islanders would be constructing a new larger arena solely for them. A couple of places have been cited but nothing concrete has been committed to.

4.    South Korea

Bettman and the NHL Board recently closed the door on “unglamorous” Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. But now has come unexpected, unbelievable news. From virtually out of nowhere, South Korea has improved its national hockey team to be good enough to be promoted to the top echelon of the World Championships. How good is this team? Next year South Korea will be competing against the very top “traditional big 7″ teams in a major international tournament for the very first time. Most likely they will just get their feet wet, lose every game, be demoted, and thanked for an historical break-through try. But if unexpectedly they do ANYTHING at that tournament that is going to be extremely embarrassing for Bettman and the NHL.

Pulling out of the Olympics in South Korea has really put Bettman and the NHL between a rock and a hard place now that South Korean hockey has improved. What if the unknown South Koreans are good enough to beat the any of the “big 7″ teams, especially Canada and the United States, are good enough after 45 years of stagnation to expand the “big 7″ at last into a “big 8″? Bettman who has brought back the World Cup after over a decade of dormancy and wants to expand and improve international hockey can hardly reject South Korea on one hand and then not be pleased at South Korea’s progress. South Korea has the potential to be a major new market not only for international hockey, but for the NHL itself. If the South Koreans are that good, Bettman will be forced to invite them to send a team to the 2020 World Cup. Pulling out of Pyeongchang so quickly has damaged the NHL’s entry into a major new hockey market.

5.    Improving International Hockey Quality

Sticking with international hockey problems for the moment, Bettman and the NHL have to finally start facing up to the problem of improving the quality of international hockey honestly. In fairness to Bettman, he is not to blame. This problem has been around long before the USSR challenged Canada in 1972. Bettman himself recognized this problem by creating hybrids “Team Europe” and “Team North America” for his revived World Cup instead of inviting any “B-Level” countries. In the 45 years since 1972, the “big 7″ have not grown into a “big 8″ or more. Specifically, improving international hockey quality should mean getting the large group of countries stuck at the “B-level” of play (There are about a dozen of them. I’ve listed them in other articles. Now South Korea has joined them.) finally over the hump so that they can compete equally with the “big 7″ teams and be able to win major international tournaments like the Olympics, the World Championships, and the World Cup.

Back in 1972, after the Canada-USSR match, there were boasts that hockey would “become the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer”. But hockey can hardly match soccer’s global reach and status if it is stuck at a narrow base of 7 countries. If Bettman wants his World Cup to start getting the status of soccer’s World Cup, the “big 7″ have to be expanded, hopefully at least to a “big 16″. Another practical reason to do this is that the NHL probably wants to expand to 40 teams within the next two decades. Each time there is expansion, the critics complain that the league gets “watered down”. But if the quality of play in the “B-level” countries were improved, there would be a huge new glut of talent to draw from. And improving the quality of play in these markets will probably increase attendance and interest in hockey bringing in more money for both international hockey and the NHL.

6.    Hamilton/Southern Ontario

Quebec is not the only Canadian problem for Bettman and the NHL. When he was hired, Bettman was probably told by the Canadian franchise owners of the NHL to preserve their monopoly in Canada. They have welcomed back Winnipeg and are willing to accept Quebec City with proper ownership. But for the new 10 franchises that the NHL wants to create in the next two decades, at least one of them HAS to be a new southern Ontario team, either in Hamilton, second Toronto, London, Kitchener, or Oshawa. Bettman must start convincing the Canadian NHL owners to accept a new southern Ontario franchise and to set an acceptable compensation package for Buffalo and Toronto like Los Angeles and New York have done in the past.

7.    Balancing The Conferences/Realignment

If the NHL reaches 32 teams, they can realign into an NFL structure; 2 Conferences with 4 Divisions that have 4 teams. This is also an ideal structure to expand the league to the next symmetrical numbers of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). But one of the problems is WHERE these teams are located. Right now Quebec wants back into the league and Hartford is making noises about returning too. This will tilt the conference imbalance still further. The recent NHL expansion was a failure. The NHL probably wanted an expansion of four teams; Quebec and three western teams, making the league a balanced 34 team league of two equal 17 team conferences, set in the NFL structure listed above and a commitment to becoming a 40 team league. Instead the NHL only got Las Vegas, Quebec is still out of the league and the NHL has not been able to realign. And no eastern team wants to be shifted west unless it was for a short, temporary period. This problem has to be resolved as soon as possible.

8.    Future NHL Expansion

If Bettman and the NHL can be placed between a rock and a hard place by South Korea, they are already in one because of NHL expansion. As noted above, the recent NHL expansion was a failure. It was probably the first time in the history of North American “big 4″ sports that there was no competition between rival cities for a new franchise and the NHL had to settle for what it could get. Of 16 potential bidders, all dropped out except for fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec City, probably because the $500 million expansion fee is considered too much for an NHL team by the business world. In contrast, there were 11 bids for an expansion team, including three from Houston alone back in 2000 when the expansion fee was $80 million.

How is the NHL going to expand if nobody wants to bid? And the league cannot solve its realignment/conference balance problems unless the league expands. One solution is to hold out, let time pass until the business world accepts a $500 million expansion fee. But how long will that be? The other loss of face solution is to refund some of the money to Bill Foley and then set a lower expansion fee that the business world will accept. Obviously the second solution is going to churn the stomachs of Bettman and the NHL governors but if they want to realign and expand quickly, it may be the only solution.

 

Quebec, Hartford And Winnipeg Were ALWAYS Great NHL Franchises

Right now NHL expansion (or readmission) to Quebec and Hartford is sitting on the back burner in NHL priorities but sooner or later they have to take center stage as front-running issues. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of all three cities including Winnipeg in 2010 and offered all three cities a chance at readmission on reasonable terms; a great fan base, acceptable NHL ownership, and a proper NHL size arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee then). Winnipeg is already back in, Quebec has built an acceptable arena but is stuck at the ownership issue, and now Hartford proposes to renovate its old XL Center and turn the New York Islanders into the Hartford Whalers.

There are issues about all three cities that I have written about on this blog and others over the years: I wonder if it is better to build a brand new arena in Hartford instead of renovating a 41 year old building and I doubt if the NHL will countenance the disappearance of the New York Islanders who have such a glorious history. I write about the unsuitable Pierre Karl Peladeau who is unpredictable, has made enemies on the NHL Board, and the social and political problems of bringing back the Nordiques to Quebec City. And I still don’t like the small size of the Winnipeg arena.

Quebec

But before I continue writing diatribes about all these issues on this blog, it is well to remember why I write about and care about them anyway. That is what this article is about, not about negatives, but positives. Since I started writing on blogs during the previous decade, I have always supported the return of the NHL to Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford. Why? Because I BELIEVE in those cities because they more than meet what may be the most crucial of Bettman’s three terms, great fan base. All three cities lost their teams in the 1990s, not because they were not getting fan support, but because of ownership and arena issues.

winnipeg

You don’t have to worry about selling tickets and NHL sports merchandise in Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford or educating fans about the nature of the game of hockey, like you might in Las Vegas or some similar city which has been the choice of NHL expansion and relocation all too often during Bettman’s term as Commissioner. All three cities have deep roots in hockey and once enjoyed great rivalries with many of the current NHL teams. Bringing them back with acceptable owners and proper arenas is a no-brainer decision. Gary Bettman, he of Canadian “anti-Canadian” myth who in fact is anything but anti-Canadian, knows that too. He believes in Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford just as much as I do. He would not have made that tour, made expressions of regret at the loss of these cities, and then offer reasonable terms for them if he did not think they could be viable NHL franchises again. And all three cities would not be the bottom-ranked NHL franchises in value but would claim respectable places – Quebec in particular – in the NHL franchise hierarchy.

whalers

The Quebec and Hartford issues have to be solved soon. Bettman’s tour and pronouncements are an unofficial commitment by the NHL to bring back these teams, if they meet certain conditions. And as I have written in several articles on this blog, the NHL is probably unofficially committed to becoming a 40 team league with a realigned NFL structure. The only thing that is awkward about readmitting Hartford and Quebec at this time is that they are both eastern cities and the NHL wants to balance its conferences. But certainly there is a place for both cities somewhere in the next ten city NHL expansion.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about future NHL expansion. Last June, I wrote an article that is probably the most popular ever written on this blog listing the 10 North American cities I believe SHOULD get an NHL franchise. Almost every day since then, I have watched its readership grow, even to this day. Obviously NHL expansion is a popular topic with most fans. Unfortunately I don’t know where exactly these readers come from. Certainly Quebec City fans have played a prominent role and there may even be interest from other countries besides Canada and the United States.

When I made my choices I assumed that all the cities would meet Bettman’s terms of good ownership and proper arena. But my choices were based on his third factor, fan base. All my choices have deep roots in hockey; there would be no need to introduce the game to them, and there would be no problem selling tickets and sports merchandise, attracting local media attention, and getting corporate sponsors. The NHL has chosen Las Vegas to be one of its ten new franchises so my idealized future 40 team league will not be the same as theirs. (Now that Las Vegas has joined, I hope they do well and not become another Phoenix.)

Just for the record I’ll re-list them now. (There is the possibility that the NHL will grow to 48 teams, the next symmetrical number, so all 10 can still get in.) There are 5 top Canadian cities: Quebec, second southern Ontario probably Hamilton, second Montreal, third southern Ontario (London, Kitchener, Oshawa, and second Toronto), and Saskatoon. And my 5 top American cities are Seattle, Portland, Hartford, Milwaukee, and Spokane.

And beyond this for North America, there are a few more American cities, not the sure winners listed above, but ones where there could be a reasonable chance for success that I would take a risk on: Kansas City, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Memphis, and Baltimore. And ANY Canadian city if it gets big and rich enough would be an automatic choice. In the long term-very long term are cities like Sherbrooke, Abbotsford, Regina, Halifax, Moncton, Victoria, St. John, etc.

And if I live long enough and maintain good health, I hope to be writing about an NHL branch in Europe too. Cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, Prague, Helsinki, and Stockholm are as much no-brainer choices for the NHL as Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford. But right now, it is time to wish Las Vegas all the best, add another western city, realign, and then get Hartford and Quebec City into the NHL as soon as possible.

 

Las Vegas Admission Did Not Solve The NHL’s Expansion Problems

While everyone should be extending a warm welcome to the NHL’s newest franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights and wishing them well, let’s not forget that the admission of just Las Vegas represents a serious failure for the NHL. This is not the expansion that the NHL wanted. It is only the expansion the NHL could get.

Before the announcement of expansion last year, there was wild speculation about what would happen. There were newspaper stories and websites all over the Internet that even before expansion was formally announced, Las Vegas, Quebec City, second Toronto, and Seattle were “done deals”. Clearly the NHL expected to move beyond the symmetrical 32 team barrier to which the NFL is committed to and begin expanding to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.

This implies that not only was expansion on the table, but probably realignment into an NFL structure of 2 conferences with 4 divisions with 4 then 5 teams in each division. Realignment into an NFL structure not only makes things easier for the fans to understand, it also makes it easy to expand the league to 40 teams (5 to a division) and then to 48 teams (6 to a division).

Before the official announcement of the terms of the expansion, there were all kinds of rumors and expectations. Cities were said to be awaiting NHL expansion for years since the last one in 2000 when Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus were added. During that expansion there were 11 bids submitted including 3 from Houston (who somehow failed to land a team). It was expected to be the same this time.

In 2010, Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand and was probably committed to realignment and becoming a 40 team league. Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift from Atlanta but Bettman was confident that both Quebec and Hartford would seriously consider getting readmitted to the NHL. There was also frustrated Hamilton, fresh from its Phoenix Coyotes misadventure or the second Toronto “done deal”. There was Las Vegas and the other “done deal” Seattle whom the NHL had serious discussions with. There were the failed bidders of 2000, Houston and Oklahoma City. Kansas City had built the Sprint Center in hopes of getting a team. Portland, another hockey hotbed and perhaps the equally good Milwaukee might be induced to submit a bid. And there was the possibility of any surprise bids from other cities. So the NHL announced expansion in rosy expectation.

But the excessive terms, particularly the $500 million expansion fee ruined the NHL’s plans. The terms attracted more public denunciations from investors than bidders. 16 potential applicants were said to be interested, but only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec stayed to the end. Probably the NHL had wanted an expansion of 4 teams; Quebec and three western cities to made realignment possible, consummate their unofficial commitment to Quebec, and balance up the conferences.

To make matters worse, the Quebec bid was submitted by Pierre Karl Peladeau, who had made many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL loved the Quebec fan base and the new arena, the Videotron, but could not abide Peladeau, who made public racist statements about one of the NHL Board members, supports a Quebec separatist political party, and is just too untrustworthy to be admitted as an NHL partner. The Quebec bid has been “suspended” indefinitely until Gary Bettman can find a suitable franchise owner.

So the NHL only got Las Vegas in the end, probably the worst expansion in “big 4″ North American sports league history. This may be the only expansion where there was no competition by rival cities for a sports franchise. The NHL is still unbalanced, nor can it realign into an NFL structure. In the end, the Las Vegas expansion is only a baby step.

Still worse is that the Arizona Coyotes are now potentially without a home in the immediate future. A sensible solution would be to shift the team to Quebec but that will only unbalance the league further. And now Hartford, so long dormant has announced plans to upgrade the XL Center and made an open attempt to lure the New York Islanders who have arena problems of their own. The NHL wants Hartford back but does it want to lose the Islanders and their glorious history? And if Hartford is granted an expansion franchise instead, that only makes the conferences more unbalanced.

But the biggest problem is that the business and investor world has said that an NHL franchise currently is not worth a $500 million expansion fee. So what do Gary Bettman and the NHL Board do now? Refund some of the expansion fee money back to Bill Foley and Las Vegas and then announce a new expansion with a smaller admission fee, more in tune with the market value of an NHL franchise, or do they keep their $500 million fee, announce more expansion and wait in vain for bids that may never come?

 

At the awards banquet, Bettman claimed that the NHL is no longer interested in expansion. Obviously they have to revise their strategy. Both options could result in an embarrassing loss of face for the NHL. Refund money back to Bill Foley and set a cheaper expansion fee means a climb down. And holding to a $500 million expansion fee resulted in only two bids by fanatics with no competition between rival cities. That’s humiliating enough. What if expansion were announced and NOBODY bid?

But a 31 team NHL is no more suitable than a 30 team league and this holds true for both the NBA and MLB as well. All three leagues have to get to at least 32 teams and realign into an NFL structure for future development. And in the NHL’s case there is pressure on them to bring back both Quebec and Hartford and balance the conferences. For added spice, there is also the ugly Arizona Coyote situation that could mean a franchise shift.

The admission of Las Vegas is not the end of the NHL expansion but only a transitory phase, further complicated by the situations in Quebec, New York, and Phoenix. The dust has definitely not settled. The admission of Las Vegas is only the end of a bad expansion episode. The real drama has yet to occur.

 

Hamilton’s Bungled NHL Bid

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.

 

The NHL Has Never Reined In Its Canadian Franchise Owners

In the many articles I have written on this blog and others about why Canada has only 7 NHL franchises,  mostly focusing in on the current Quebec problem,  I have frequently mentioned the problem of elitism in Canada.  I have written that this is not just an NHL problem but taints almost all aspects of life in Canada and has been present through all its history.    New France was an elitist society and so were the early Loyalist settlements.  In 1837, two rebellions broke out in Canada against oligarchic government.

In my own personal experience, there was seldom a job situation in Canada that was not tainted by elitism where somebody was picking on somebody else and making other people’s lives miserable. The ugliest incident in my own lifetime would be the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, tormented by others who considered her “not one of them”. Elitism is deeply ingrained in Canada.

And it is probably the main reason why there are only 7 NHL franchises in Canada. The current situation with the prospective Quebec City owner is only indirectly tainted with elitism. It has more to do with Pierre Karl Peladeau making enemies on the NHL Board by his politics, his inappropriate racial remarks, and his obstructionist business actions.

However, elitism is more evident when explaining why there is no other southern Ontario team besides the Toronto Maple Leafs, located in either another part of Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, or Oshawa. Toronto (and Buffalo) refuses to share the rich southern Ontario market with anyone else. New York and Los Angeles can work out their differences, settle suitable compensation and operate more than one NHL franchise. So can similar situations in MLB, the NBA, and the NFL. But implacable Toronto refuses to share, so one of the best potential NHL franchises in Canada, Hamilton, whose city council is willing to spend $50 million to renovate its current arena to a more than acceptable 18,500 seats and more luxury boxes, never gets a team.

And this situation points to one other problem: Toronto and other Canadian franchise owners are allowed to dictate NHL policy to the detriment of Canada. It has been that way since the first expansion back in 1967. Before that year, it was announced that the NHL would double in size from 6 to 12 teams and there was lots of speculation about which cities would get a team. In Canada it was almost taken for granted that Vancouver which was the third largest city in Canada behind Montreal and Toronto would be one of the cities. But when the cities were finally revealed and Canadians found out that the expected Vancouver franchise had become St. Louis, there were howls of outrage right across the country. What got little publicity was that the franchise owners of Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Canadian television money and were decisive in preventing Vancouver from joining the league. Vancouver would get its team in the next expansion three years later but the pattern and precedent had been set. Canadian NHL franchise owners would oppose Canadian cities and prevent them from joining the NHL.

Two years later other wealthy Canadians pondering Vancouver’s fate, decided to try something different. Instead of trying to join the NHL they decided to compete with it. So they joined with American partners to start a rival league, the WHA. The future NHL franchises of Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg were born. The WHA owners had to have a different attitude to Canadian teams and Canadian expansion because their most successful franchises were in Canada and the very survival of the league depended on the Canadian market. So there was no opposition to adding more Canadian teams. At various times, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa had WHA franchises. There was even a Canadian division set up.

But the competition between the WHA and the NHL caused salaries and costs to escalate and talks began to merge the leagues. There was opposition in the NHL to merging the leagues and is it significant who the opponents were. On the NHL Board, the leaders were Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings. Montreal, owned by Molson Breweries did not want to share the province of Quebec market with Quebec City. So merging the leagues kept being defeated until fans in Quebec took matters into their own hands and initiated a boycott of Molson beer. That ended the opposition of Montreal and the opponents of the merger were outvoted at last.

In later years, Calgary and then Ottawa which snatched a bungled Hamilton bid, were granted teams, the only times (with the exception of the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg) when Canadian cities got franchises smoothly and without obstruction.

And all through these years during which Canadian NHL franchise owners opposed the creation of new Canadian NHL teams behind closed doors, the Canadian hockey public took comfort and refuge behind a Canadian created myth; that the NHL was anti-Canadian. They believed that the large number of American franchise owners, led by John Ziegler and Gary Bettman were conspiring to keep Canadian franchises to a minimum. And of course the Canadian franchise owners were happy to let Canadians believe this myth which got them off the hook.

Actually it would not be surprising to discover that Gary Bettman was specifically hired to keep the existing monopoly for the Canadian franchise owners. He is merely carrying out a policy that the Canadian members of the NHL Board prescribed for him. They do not want to share Canadian television money and they do not want other Canadian franchises to move into their markets. So there is no Hamilton team and probably there will be opposition to a second Montreal and Saskatchewan team for these reasons.

Even if there really is a block of anti-Canadian American owners, their opposition has counted for nothing. All they have to do is put their feet up and let their Canadian franchise partners do the job for them. But the existence of such a group is highly unlikely. As for Bettman, he initiated the return of Winnipeg and Quebec back in 2010 by making a tour and offering them reasonable terms for a returned team (no mention of a $500 million entry fee back then). And recently after being shown the wonders of the newly built Rogers Place in Edmonton, he is already raving that Edmonton should get a future All-star game and be the chosen arena for a future NHL draft, hardly the actions of someone who is supposed to be anti-Canadian.

If the NHL can be accused of anything, it can be that it has let its Canadian franchise owners dictate league policy to the detriment of NHL growth in Canada. The American owners are not anti-Canadian, just indifferent. What Bettman should be saying, even dictating, is that Toronto and Buffalo work out a suitable compensation package like what was done in New York and Los Angeles so that Hamilton can join the league. And once it is settled, apply the same deal to Montreal and Saskatchewan and any other potential Canadian expansion site as well.

The main reason there are not more Canadian NHL teams is because the NHL will not or cannot control its Canadian franchise monopolists. As long as they are allowed to control policy, NHL Canadian franchise growth is going to be stunted. But these franchise owners are merely following the elitist policy that has been around in Canada since the beginning of its history. It is ironic that Canada, the second largest country in area on Earth has no room for so many people and enterprises whom its elitist cliques have deemed unsuitable to them.

 

Arizona Coyotes/NFL? Bad Morals And Bad Business

It should be win-win and instead it is lose-lose. The surreal thing about the Arizona Coyotes trying to get a $225 million subsidy from the Arizona legislature is why there is even such a subsidy bill proposed and considered. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman pleading for a bill which I suspect if he was an Arizona taxpayer, he wouldn’t even give the time of day for.

Phoenix taxpayers, specifically Glendale are already deeply in debt on an NHL arena – built specifically for the Coyotes at taxpayer expense – 13 years ago. That’s right, the Arizona Coyotes current arena, costing several hundred million dollars is no good after only 13 years. Planned obsolescence on a massive scale. Now Bettman has officially told everybody that the Coyotes are finished in Glendale, that building that arena was a mistake.

And he is right. In fact NO arena or stadium should be built with taxpayer money in any city. If an expensive facility should be placed on the junk heap after only such a short time, it has the word “sucker” written all over it. And those who did the suckering, in this case the NHL, should not get another penny for anything. Why even such a subsidy bill is before the Arizona legislature is the real mystery. And all this for a team that has only had one good NHL season in its entire existence.

There are too many other such tales. Montreal building a $1 billion dollar stadium for the Olympics in 1976 which later nobody claimed they liked to watch either a football or baseball game in. The Toronto Argonauts pulling out of the SkyDome/Rogers Field which fans claim is inappropriate and too far away to watch a football game. The wonderful Barclay’s Center, the home of the New York Islanders that has obstructed seats for watching hockey. Ottawa claiming that its Kanata home is too far away to attract fans.

Meanwhile Phoenix does not have enough taxpayer dollars to fund children’s schools. Glad to know that they have their priorities right. Perhaps Bettman and the Coyotes owners and management should send their children to Phoenix for their education.

Leagues

Adding to this wonderful story is the NFL stripping three of its “traditional” cities of their teams in the past two years, two of them, not because of bad support or bad facilities, but because their markets are not as big as Los Angeles. The NFL could have given Los Angeles two expansion teams and Las Vegas one, but instead caused pain to loyal, devoted fans in its existing markets with the shrug of its soldiers and not a blink of the eye. And it’s comforting to know that Buffalo, Minnesota, and Jacksonville as well as the three victims were listed unofficially on many websites as potential teams to be moved too. If “something better” comes up, their days could be numbered as well.

So much for fan loyalty. So much for local, regional, and state perks granted to North American professional sports owners. So much for subsidized facilities built at taxpayer expense. So much for the support of local corporate sponsorships. So much for extensive, local media coverage. Meanwhile during the Obama administration, 45 million Americans (and uncounted Canadians) have been unofficially been labeled “poor”. And much of the funding for these sports palaces and perks comes from these “poor” people’s tax dollars.

It is hard to know who is crazier, government officials who approve these grants of money or the fans themselves who want these “bread and circuses/sports drugs” at all cost. In fact the only sane people are the owners themselves. They know they can get the money and they go for it.

At least in Phoenix it is being reported that the subsidy bill has little chance to be enacted. That there are too many pressing concerns besides professional sports franchises. That even politicians are getting tired of being suckered by rich sports franchise owners. That there is one 13 year old sports facility built that is already too many. That too much has already been given to a franchise with only one decent season in its history.

That will leave the NHL in a real quandary. They have publicly stated that there is no future in Glendale and now there are no other places to play anywhere else in Phoenix. And they can’t move the Coyotes east to hockey starved Quebec, Hamilton, or Hartford because that will make the league conferences even more unbalanced. Seattle whom they favor the most is out of the picture because it can’t resolve its arena problem. Las Vegas has already got its expansion team to the tune of $500 million. So will Houston, Portland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, even Saskatoon come to the rescue? The NHL has already had to subsidize the Coyotes for several years. The only thing that is a pleasure in all this is for once the people who have already got too much are taking the hit and not the taxpayers.

(By the way, happy April Fools Day)

Pierre Karl Peladeau: Mr. Inconsistent

If only Pierre Karl Peladeau had been true to Quebec Nordiques fans… As every die-hard Nordique fan who is longing to get the team back knows, the NHL loves the newly built Videotron arena, is more than happy with the Quebec City fan base and market which stretches half way to Montreal and all the way into the four Maritime provinces. But the NHL Board cannot stand prospective owner Peladeau.

He was a suspect owner in many of the NHL owners’ eyes before he ever applied either to buy the Montreal Canadiens or restart the Quebec Nordiques because of his support for the separatist provincial political party, Parti Quebecois. Then when his company lost the Canadiens to Molson Breweries, he made an inappropriate remark about the new owner of the Canadiens, Geoff Molson and failed to reconcile with him. The situation called for tact, patience, and building bridges. Instead Peladeau merely confirmed the Board’s worst fears about him and made Commissioner Gary Bettman’s rejection of his Quebec Nordiques bid automatic.

Looking back, there is a significant difference between the recovery of the Winnipeg Jets and the attempted recovery of the Quebec Nordiques at the ownership factor. In the period before the Jets came back, Commissioner Bettman and maybe some of the NHL Board members were in constant touch with prospective owners Mark Chipman and Dave Thomson. The NHL had no qualms transferring the Atlanta Thrashers to their ownership and back to Winnipeg. It was obvious that the Board members liked Thomson and Chipman who was subsequently elected to the NHL Executive Committee.

But it was very different during the period up to the last expansion when the Videotron was built. Bettman was seen several times with the Quebec City mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier, but not Peladeau. When any announcement is made from Quebecor about the Nordiques situation, it comes from Board member, ex-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Peladeau, who would be the principle governor on the NHL Board if the Quebecor bid was accepted seems to have no direct personal contact with anyone connected with the NHL, understandable given his relationship with Geoff Molson. He is someone to be avoided and not spoken about.

But even if Peladeau did not make any remarks about Molson and took his Canadiens defeat with good grace, the NHL would be wise to avoid him. He is simply too inconsistent to be trusted by the NHL, Quebec Nordiques fans, or even the most committed Quebec separatist. His actions belong in the realm of absurdity. There is no logic behind obstructing the business activities of a colleague of a business rival, then make insensitive racial remarks about him in public, remarks that probably offended not only Molson, but other members of the NHL Board, and then seek to become a business partner on that same Board whom he has offended.

But it is not only in business that Peladeau is absurd, his political actions are completely incongruent. Here is a man claiming to be a supporter of a political party dedicated to restricting minority rights in Quebec and taking the province out of Canada. So what does this “separatist” do? He invests in Canada by buying the Sun Media Chain. Now he has employees of all kinds of nationalities right across Canada helping to make profits for his company. He is responsible for their welfare. Now he probably has to speak in English every day.

And if the Parti Quebecois whom he claims he supports does succeed in making Quebec a sovereign state, what will happen to the economy of the rest of Canada and the status of his enlarged company? His profits could take a nose-dive along with his rich life-style. This “separatist” has every reason to oppose the goals of the Parti Quebecois. His company’s future health is tied up in the prosperity of a united Canada and any action like restricting minority rights in Quebec still further, stirring up more separatist turmoil, or even planning another referendum is going to affect the prosperity of Canada and his profits.

So why would the NHL want such an inconsistent owner on its Board? They want someone they can believe in and trust. Why would any Quebec Nordiques fan want him as an owner? Why would any separatist voter support an investor/candidate who has made such a large financial commitment to Canada?

Who is Pierre Karl Peladeau? A separatist? A Quebec nationalist? A Canadian investor and businessman? Nobody knows and probably it is wise, like the NHL not to try and find out.

What Can ZoneNordiques Do?

In a recent article, I wrote about how a pressure/lobby group can help facilitate either a new North America professional sports franchise or a returned former beloved team. In this article, I will focus on the Quebec City lobby group, ZoneNordiques which has special problems with getting their team back that other lobby groups might not have.

The two main obstacles that other cities seeking a new NHL franchise do not have and which are the main reasons that Quebec does not have its team back already are elitism and racism. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman listed three conditions that all would-be NHL franchises must have: Fan-base, arena, and ownership. Quebec City has a fanatical fan-base and the new Videotron arena is so good, the NHL granted Quebec a World Cup exhibition game.

The problem is ownership which is tainted with racism and elitism. The would-be new owner of Quebecor, Pierre Karl Peladeau has made some enemies on the NHL Board of Governors, both for his politics (he is a supporter of the provincial separatist political party, Parti Quebecois), and for making an inappropriate racial remark about one of the governors, Geoff Molson and also obstructing the business of one of Molson’s colleagues. He has made no attempt to reconcile with Molson, and the NHL, though it likes Quebec as a franchise and wants that $500 million entry fee, wants no part of him. The NHL is prepared to wait indefinitely until a suitable owner appears so the result has been a stalemate.

It has been my contention that Gary Bettman has been working behind the scenes trying to find a suitable owner for a new Quebec team, and because there is virtually no news, it is difficult to know if anything is going on and if any progress is being made. It can also be speculated that Bettman may know that one of the Board of Governors either wants to sell or move his franchise and that Bettman is waiting for the current season to end and make the same kind of ownership manoeuver that he made to restore the Winnipeg Jets.

So what can the official Quebec lobby group, ZoneNordiques do? They are the most fanatical of all the Quebec Nordiques fans and like the previous “Manitoba Mythbusters” of the Winnipeg situation, want the team back the most.

As far as the ownership problem is concerned, assuming that Quebec will get an expansion franchise and not a relocated team, there are two possible solutions. First find a stereotype owner from inside the Province of Quebec. It goes without saying that this person will have enough money. Most likely he/she will be French Canadian, be tolerant and non-political, know the Quebec local, provincial and possibly even the Maritime markets, someone who wants to avoid unacceptable controversies like racism, be discreet and patient in public, and will put the Nordiques and the NHL first in all matters. ZoneNordiques can help Bettman and the NHL locate such people. Both in 1995 and now in 2016-17, no rich French Canadian investor from Quebec has come forward to rescue the Nordiques. It has been Peladeau or nobody.

At one time I speculated that Mario Lemieux might sell his Pittsburgh Penguin shares and then front a Quebec City ownership group. I wondered if the resignation of Patrick Roy from the Colorado Avalanche with General Manager ex-Nordique Joe Sakic’s blessing had something to do with resolving the ownership problem. So far, nothing has cracked the wall of silence. And that makes me wonder if such rich French Canadian Quebec residents even exist. ZoneNordiques members can do an investigation into this matter. They would know the who’s who of the Province of Quebec better than anybody. And if no such people exist, Gary Bettman, the NHL, and all Nordiques fans are wasting their time. Because if there are no people who fit the NHL stereotype owner, then Quebec City must accept the only other option: Outside ownership either by expansion or relocation.

This is nothing new in professional sports. Both Ottawa and Winnipeg in the NHL are owned by Torontonians, and when the Toronto Blue Jays of MLB were created in 1977, much of the financing came from Montreal. A new Quebec City owner could be either an anglophone Quebecer like Molson or Charles Bronfman of the Montreal Expos or a complete outsider from either “English Canada” or the United States who cannot speak a word of French.

Are Quebec Nordiques fans prepared to accept this? And it starts with ZoneNordiques. They have to debate this issue either on their website or amongst themselves first. Why? Because if the most fanatical Quebec Nordiques fans cannot accept an outsider who cannot speak French as an owner of the team, then NOBODY can. And if it is discovered that the ethnic and language background of a potential owner is more important than getting the Nordiques back, perhaps it is better that Quebec does not get a team. In every professional sports league in North America. teams are composed of multi-racial players with different religions who play in cosmopolitan cities. The NHL cannot tolerate an owner with even a sniff of racism. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur if an NFL, MLB, or NBA owner made an inappropriate remark about black people? Morale would be deteriorate, the league would get a bad image, and possibly there would even be lawsuits.

The NHL (and the CFL, NFL, NBA, and MLB) is not going to place a franchise in a city where it is going to get involved in unnecessary, inappropriate political, racial, ethnic, language, and religious controversies. They will not come to a city where an outside owner is going to be subjected to these kind of pressures. Hopefully ZoneNordiques will be in favor of outside ownership if that comes to pass and is the only way to get the Nordiques back. And if that happens, there is plenty that they can do.

They have to prepare the rest of their followers and the provincial Quebec public to accept such a situation. If there are troublemaking fans who want to stir up inappropriate controversies, then they have to be dealt with. If members of the French Canadian press throughout the province want to make language, ethnic background, and religion an issue, then they have to be told to lay off. And politicians who want to restrict minority rights still further and make owning and operating a Quebec City team more difficult through retaliatory legislation should be warned that it is unpopular and will be politically punished.

This issue is not just confined to the Nordiques. As noted above, none of the other professional sports leagues will place a franchise in Quebec City if inappropriate controversies ensue. Nor will the Olympics and other top international sports events come. Quebec will not get a Worlds Fair or international conventions if it gets a bad image. ZoneNordiques can help in this matter. They can displace any bad myths that have arisen. They can show Bettman, the NHL Board of Governors, and any potential investors that Quebec is a tolerant place to invest in and live. They can dispel any fears that outside investors might have about restarting the Nordiques again. Right now the ownership issue is in a stalemate. ZoneNordiques can help tip the scales in their favor and get their dream back like the Manitoba Mythbusters did.

PRESSURE GROUPS CAN HELP GET A NEW NHL FRANCHISE

One of the smartest things that occurred when Winnipeg and Quebec lost their franchises in the 1990s, was that their most fanatical fans banded together to form lobbying, pressure groups dedicated to getting their NHL franchises back. In Winnipeg they called themselves the Manitoba Mythbusters and in Quebec they called themselves ZoneNordiques. Both started their own websites to keep their loyal followings informed about what was going to make the day when the Jets and Nordiques would rise again, a glorious reality.

The Mythbusters and ZoneNordiques carefully play up every positive statement and action by NHL officials, potential investors, media commentators, NHL and ex-NHL players and just about anyone who says anything positive about the local market that could help reclaim their team. They vigilantly watch and wait for every sign of new NHL expansion so that their city can join in the bidding process. They try to rally public support whenever possible to demonstrate to the NHL that they are in earnest about getting their team back.

Winnipeg has already seen its dream come true. First, they saw their new arena which was supposed to be the home of the AHL Manitoba Moose be proclaimed acceptable by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. I used to feud with the Mythbusters on another blog about the size of their new arena which is the smallest in the NHL. Though I am in favor of a returned Jets, and Nordiques (and Whalers too), I believed (and still believe) that the arena does not have enough seats. I don’t want to see Winnipeg lose the Jets again because of arena problems, but the NHL is accepting their arena and I have had to eat my words. We’ll see in coming seasons if the size of the Winnipeg arena becomes a factor and if Winnipeg will have to build a new, larger one.

I have no problem with new Quebec Videotron that seats near the current NHL median of 18,500. Nor does the NHL. They showed how much they liked the Videotron by allowing Quebec to host an exhibition game in last year’s revived World Cup.

When Atlanta was ready to fold, Winnipeg was ready. They had already recruited Mark Chipman and Canada’s richest man, Dave Thomson to be the Jets new owners. The NHL liked their ownership too and had no qualms about turning the Thrashers into the Jets. But the same cannot be said of Quebec’s prospective owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau who has made bad enemies on the NHL Board. He has been deemed unsuitable by the NHL Board which turned down his application quickly without a second thought leaving the Quebec bid in limbo until a suitable owner is found.

ZoneNordiques want to see their dream come true too. They probably were instrumental in solving the first two conditions that Commissioner Bettman demanded in 2010, fan-base and arena. 80,000 fans signed a petition asking the Nordiques to be returned and they in turn indicated that they would not object if taxpayer money was used to build a new arena. It was probably a proud and hopeful day for ZoneNordiques when the Videotron was finally completed. Only the ownership factor has yet to be solved.

But they should take heart from the Mythbusters who never gave up and got through every obstacle until their dream came true. It cannot be said that the Manitoba Mythbusters were the key element in bringing back the Winnipeg Jets. But without their existence Winnipeg might still be without an NHL team. ZoneNordiques are in the same situation. If a suitable NHL owner can be found – perhaps located with their help – they too might have their ultimate day of joy.