For a Canadian city, a Prairie city, to lose its National Hockey League franchise is a blow that only a Canadian could understand. It is as if the city's raison d'être were yanked out from under it. It was a blindside hit - though the city saw it coming. It was a massive, collective concussion. Was there life after hockey? No.
And now it appears to be on its way back - the raison d'être. There is joy at Portage and Main, and that joy should be shared across Canada. Manitoba is a have province once again - in NHL terms - and at least one more team, might, and should, be coming this country's way.
Winnipeg's anticipated return to the NHL means the logic of Canada is in the ascendant.
That logic is not the one beloved by the league's owners. The league does not see Canada as a wonderful growth opportunity. Putting a team back in Winnipeg or Quebec City would do nothing to persuade U.S. viewers to watch hockey on television.
And yet - as in the global recession - slow and steady and reliable mean something. The NHL understands that its reliable gates are in Canada. The loss of Atlanta, for the second time, is a rebuke to its southern-growth strategy. That franchise suffered because of weak ownership, poor marketing and a lousy team. And other U.S. cities, perhaps as many as nine or 10, are or soon will be on the market. Phoenix, which has Winnipeg's former franchise, and Columbus, are among those that might be pried loose by Canadian investors.
Will Winnipeggers support the team? The former Jets franchise attracted (to an older stadium) barely 13,000 people a game in each of the three years before the final, lame-duck season (11,313 a game, average ticket price just $23.82). But there are reasons for optimism: a new stadium, a humming economy, a high Canadian dollar, a salary-cap system in the league that allows small-market teams to be competitive, and strong prospective ownership that includes David Thomson, whose family holding company, Woodbridge Co. Ltd., owns The Globe and Mail. And the corporate base needed to purchase the company boxes is stronger than many realize, with 30 of Canada's largest 800 corporations, a bigger number than Edmonton or Ottawa.
It was just a decade ago that five of the remaining six Canadian teams (out of the eight that once were) were tottering. Today, the NHL's southern-growth strategy is a shambles, and Canadian cities and investors are left to pick up the pieces. Wealthy, populous southern Ontario may yet get a second franchise.
The city of Hull and Hedberg, Hawerchuk and Selanne, could soon be the city of Kane and Byfuglien. Canada is back. About time, too.
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