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(Tory Zimmerman)
(Tory Zimmerman)

Hockey in Hamilton

An NHL bridesmaid's tale Add to ...

All the recent fuss about bringing an NHL team to Hamilton obscures a little-known fact: They used to have one.

The Hamilton Tigers were members of the NHL in the early 1920s before ownership balked at paying players more money on the eve of the playoffs in 1925, and the team's assets were sold to American interests the following year.

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The question, as Research In Motion billionaire Jim Balsillie's bid to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Steeltown winds its way through bankruptcy courts in Arizona, is can the city afford an NHL team now?

"I have been quoted for the last 20 years saying that anyone who wanted to do an NHL team in Hamilton, they should immediately seek medication," says Ron Foxcroft, 63, the owner of two Hamilton-based businesses - Fox 40 International and Fluke Transport - and the man responsible for organizing the Hamilton Bulldogs' AHL ownership group in 2002.

But the tide seems to have turned - and not just because of the persistent efforts of Balsillie to use Hamilton as leverage to pry struggling teams out of first Pittsburgh, then Nashville, and now Phoenix.

"In terms of the NHL, the difference between 20 years ago and now is the catchment area for Hamilton is nine million people," Foxcroft says.

"The same is true for the Hamilton airport and Hamilton Health Sciences.

"You've got nine million people within a 90-minute drive and then you add in the new electronic age, where people communicate around the world. So, basically, the Hamilton market is pent-up and enthusiastic for NHL hockey. And I mean pent-up. With nine million people."

No market has been teased by the NHL more than Hamilton. When it comes to the promise of an NHL franchise, the city isn't just a consistent bridesmaid, but one with runny mascara and a bad hangover.

The locals say it's their time.

In the post-Tigers era, Hamilton's dalliances with the NHL date back to the early late 1970s and early '80s, when the Colorado Rockies were looking to leave Denver. Former Hamilton mayor Jack MacDonald claimed a deal was near, according to Russ Boychuk, a Hamilton businessman and hockey promoter. The opportunity died on the vine when MacDonald ran for re-election and lost in 1980.

"I'm not sure how close it was," Boychuk says. "If MacDonald had won he might have pushed harder, but [the nearby Buffalo Sabres]would have put up a wall. Jack got it to the starting block, but a lot of hurdles remained."

The city built Copps Coliseum, opened in 1985, with an eye towards landing an NHL team, but has never been rewarded for its effort.

The best chance for Hamilton to gain entry into the NHL came in 1991, when Ron Joyce (of Tim Hortons fame) backed an expansion bid. He sought to pay the $50-million expansion fee in instalments rather than in one chunk, and the NHL chose to put teams in Ottawa and Tampa instead.

The irony is the same economic downturn that has made the NHL such a perilous undertaking in Phoenix has hit Hamilton's steel, automotive and manufacturing base just as hard.

A Statistics Canada study in 2002 showed Hamilton was the ninth-largest head-office city in Canada, slightly behind Quebec City, which lost its NHL team in 1995.

At that time, just 2,358 people were employed in head-office functions in Hamilton, edging out Halifax with 1,868 and well behind Toronto's 56,022. These numbers aren't likely to be any better now.

Since it is head offices that buy sponsorships, corporate suites and season-ticket packages, it seems a potential franchise in Hamilton might suffer - but local business interests say it's not the case.

"Financially, you could support a team here," says David Braley, 67, owner of the CFL's B.C. Lions and a past owner of the hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Braley's words reflects the defiant optimism of the city even as it feels the weight of a floundering economy. Braley says he lost millions on the Tiger-Cats, but feels an NHL team would be different because it would be a draw from Highway 427 on the western fringes of Toronto all the way to Niagara Falls, and north to Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph and beyond.

Boychuk feels the same way. He holds the distinction of being the first person to pay a territorial rights fee to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He promoted an NHL exhibition game between the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals in 1986, and another between Boston and the New York Islanders in 1987, paying $75,000 and $100,000, respectively, to Leafs owner Harold Ballard for the privilege.

Boychuk feels the NHL in Hamilton would sell well by drawing on Toronto-based executives in Hamilton, Oakville and Burlington who might prefer to do their corporate entertaining closer to home than at the downtown-Toronto Air Canada Centre.

"I think it would be a tight ticket," Boychuk says, adding he even has a name for a new team: The Hamilton Tigers.

Boychuk's biased, of course. He owns the rights to the name and is helping produce a CBC documentary about the search for the last remaining Tigers jersey, considered one of the most obscure - thus valuable - sports collectibles around.

But if he had his way, the Tigers would be back in the NHL sooner than later, and Tigers jerseys would be plentiful.

****

OH, SO CLOSE...

Hamilton has been down the NHL aisle many times since the Hamilton Tigers left in 1925, but never made it to the alter:

1925

HAMILTON TIGERS

What happened: The players went on strike on the eve of the NHL playoffs, seeking an additional $200 pay for playing an extra six games during the regular season. The team balked, the league backed the management. The players wouldn't budge and were suspended. Shortly after the season, the team's assets were sold as part of league expansion, becoming the New York Americans.

Late 1970s

COLORADO ROCKIES

What happened: Some say if Jack MacDonald had been re-elected mayor in 1980, the Rockies would have ended up in Hamilton. Instead, they ended up as the New Jersey Devils in 1982

1983-84

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

What happened: With Copps Coliseum under construction, several business interests were linked to the struggling Penguins, including Bill Ballard, son of the Toronto Maple Leafs owner. The Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984, and never moved.

1991

NHL expansion

What happened: Tim Hortons mogul Ron Joyce was backing a Hamilton bid for a team, but reports said he lost out when he sought to stagger the payments on the $50-million expansion fee the league was seeking.

2003

Ottawa Senators

What happened: With the Senators in bankruptcy, a Toronto group was approached about buying the team and moving the team to Hamilton. Instead, Eugene Melnyk bought the team and kept it in Ottawa.

2006

Penguins

What happened: Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie reached an agreement to buy the Penguins that October, but withdrew the bid in December, when the NHL insisted he keep the team in Pittsburgh.

2007

Nashville Predators

What happened: Balsillie reached a tentative agreement to buy the Predators and even accepted deposits for season tickets for a team playing out of Copps, where he had secured a lease. Then-Predators owner Craig Leipold - reportedly under pressure from the NHL - decided not to go forward with the deal and the team was sold to a local group.

2009

Phoenix Coyotes

What happened: Balsillie offers to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton. Process is before the U.S. courts. The verdict is pending ...

Globe and Mail staff

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