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The Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate their victory over the Buffalo Sabres after the overtime period of their NHL hockey game in Buffalo, New York January 29, 2013 (DOUG BENZ/REUTERS)
The Toronto Maple Leafs celebrate their victory over the Buffalo Sabres after the overtime period of their NHL hockey game in Buffalo, New York January 29, 2013 (DOUG BENZ/REUTERS)

Mirtle: Second GTA team would be good for the Maple Leafs, too Add to ...

In sports, competition drives everything.

It pushes players to battle for spots on the team in training camp. Or to fight for a loose puck in the corner.

At a basic level, it’s what the entire exercise is about.

But for too long now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have lacked any real competition off the ice.

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And it really does appear to be hurting the interest level in the NHL in the Greater Toronto Area.

Consider that, if you expand that region to include the full “golden horseshoe” around Lake Ontario, we’re talking about more than eight million people, or an incredible 26 per cent of this country’s population, with one NHL team serving them.

There are a lot of hockey fans there, and of course, many of them are Leafs fans. But with the team struggling so often of late – missing the playoffs for closing in on a decade – there’s also something very stagnant and uninteresting about the league’s presence in this market.

The Leafs play. They lose. And few beyond the suits can ever get into the building.

Both of Toronto’s key rivals are also at least a four hour drive away and out of this area of fans, which means there’s a certain homogeneity in the fan base: If you still care about the NHL (and many don’t seem to) you’re generally a Leafs fan.

The league has done very little to grow interest among those eight million fans, which seems like a bizarre strategy for a sport that goes bananas over U.S. regional ratings that are well under a half million for even the top teams.

It’s not out the question that, if you can start to win over some of the sports fans who aren’t Leafs fans, many of whom now seem to be turning to the NFL, soccer and college teams these days, there’s room for a lot more growth.

That’s why finally putting another team in the GTA, even if it’s in Markham – obviously not the first choice – makes a lot of sense for the NHL. In a heavily gate-driven league, a GTA team would have a huge gate at least 41 nights a year, and if you put them in the Leafs division, those six meetings every year would have enormous pull in the sports landscape in the region.

You’d be hearing about the games for weeks.

Another team would also allow those that dislike the Leafs to gravitate to a new franchise, to root forcefully against the blue and white disease in a tangible way.

You’d likely even have some people jumping ship, “traitors” who could convert from a losing team they couldn’t afford to see to a new, unknown entity that they could.

That would certainly interject some hate into the mix.

“I think it’d be great for the game,” Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek said on Wednesday after practice. “There’s no passion for hockey like there is here in Ontario. I don’t know how a team would do up in Markham, but there’s plenty of hockey fans to go around. I’m sure it’d create another huge rivalry.

“I remember going to Ranger-Islanders games [as a kid growing up on Long Island]. My dentist had second row seats off the glass, and there were fights in the stands all the time. I remember the backup goalie looking back at the stands wondering who was winning the fight. The fans were beating the snot out of each other. That was back in the day.”

“It would be just like Montreal or Buffalo or Ottawa,” added Matt Frattin. “A lot of people don’t get to games obviously because it’s hard to get tickets.”

That increased rivalry would certainly be good for the interest level in the league as a whole, but it’d also be good for the Leafs as a business entity. For a franchise that has hardly had to lift a finger to fill the building the last 20 years, a challenger 30 minutes away (or at least double that on the Don Valley Parkway) would be a ton of motivation to better serve their fan base.

Because, right now, it doesn’t feel like the NHL or the Leafs are coming close to maximizing the interest (and profit) level in this area.

For all the effort the league has put into growing the game and having success in the U.S., it’s missing out on a huge opportunity to grow its base here as well.

The Leafs may still be selling out, but they’re also turning people away - and more importantly, turning potential fans off with both their lack of success and unwillingness to do more than the minimum to grow interest in the league.

So it’s time for a little more competition here. May the best team win.

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