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National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman answers questions during a pre-game media availability before the Pittsburgh Penguins season opener against the New York Rangers in a NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman answers questions during a pre-game media availability before the Pittsburgh Penguins season opener against the New York Rangers in a NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Why Not Canada? Part 3

Why not Hamilton? Add to ...

One of the most famous goals in hockey history was scored at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton when Wayne Gretzky fed Mario Lemieux for the winner in the third and deciding game of the 1987 Canada Cup against the Soviet Union.

Back then, Hamiltonians could taste the NHL coming to their town and playing games in its then state-of-the-art arena, built to bring the NHL back to Hamilton after an absence of more than 60 years. Almost a quarter century later, Copps Coliseum and Hamilton hockey fans are still waiting, perpetually teased but always denied what they believe is their destiny.

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"I think some people would say that the fix is in, that the NHL is not interested in Hamilton," said Hamilton city councillor Terry Whitehead, who initiated a subcommittee to look at attracting the NHL. "From my perspective, we have the facility, we have the location, we have the market. It would be silly for us to turn our backs at this stage of the game."

Hamilton may not be turning its back on the NHL but the NHL has shown no interest in delivering the city a franchise, either through expansion - which Hamilton lost out on to Tampa Bay and Ottawa in 1990 - or relocation, as Research In Motion co-chief executive officer Jim Balsillie learned during his experiences trying to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and then the Phoenix Coyotes.

"I think people tend to focus on Hamilton because there is a building there," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I'm not sure that's a building we have any interest in going into because it would need a substantial renovation."

Whitehead said the arena could be brought to NHL business standards for about $100-million. Balsillie's plan, which included a new atrium-style lobby, a ticketing area, street-level retail, expanded seating capacity to more than 18,000 and 89 luxury boxes, came in at an estimated cost of $150-million. Bettman believes the requirement would exceed $200-million.

There is little debate that hockey fans would fill the arena, renovated or not.

While Hamilton's metro population is slightly less than 750,000 this year - smaller than Winnipeg or Quebec City - the actual market grows to about 3.2 million when the municipalities within 80 kilometres of Copps Coliseum are added in.

When Balsillie held his suite-and-ticket drive in 2007, he collected more than 14,000 down payments in less than a week. A significant portion came from addresses scattered throughout Southern Ontario, outside of Hamilton.

"The cities around Hamilton would jump onto the same bandwagon," said Mario Lefebvre, director of the Centre for Municipal Studies at the Conference Board of Canada. "It's a very decent market for the NHL."

In U.S. federal bankruptcy court in Phoenix, the NHL declared that a Hamilton franchise would generate the league's fifth highest revenue. The claim was made to protect the league's right to a huge relocation fee, in the event Balsillie had been allowed by the court to relocate the Coyotes last year.

There are NHL governors who have told The Globe and Mail privately that the NHL should be investigating the opportunity in Hamilton. But Bettman couldn't be less interested. He said the league's priorities are to keep teams in their present locations, with relocation to former NHL cities as the fallback. In other words, he would favour Winnipeg or Quebec City over Hamilton for expansion or relocation.

"Despite the way it's sometimes portrayed, we're not sitting there sharpening our pencils and running the numbers," Bettman said. "This is sport. This is a business that depends on an emotional connection to our teams, to our players, to our game. Is that the right place if you were to have a second team in Southern Ontario? Maybe it belongs in London, maybe it belongs in Waterloo. Who knows? That's not anything anyone has studied. The notion that well, 'There's an old building there that happens to be there, let's go,' I don't think that's the way you put your franchises on the ground."

Perhaps Bettman and the NHL really aren't convinced Copps Coliseum could be made suitable. And perhaps, despite vouching for the market in court, they don't see what others say is obvious about the potential of the market around Hamilton to support NHL hockey.

Or perhaps the NHL simply doesn't want to cross swords with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. The NHL defines territorial rights as extending 80 kilometres in all directions, meaning Hamilton sits within the defined territory of both franchises.

Another tease surfaced last week, when it was revealed that Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz is negotiating for the Copps Coliseum lease. But the city's spurned fans believe the failure to land a team has everything to do with what lies down the Queen Elizabeth Way, in opposite directions.

"The market is very strong, extremely supportive of hockey, no doubting it at all," University of Ottawa sports business professor Norm O'Reilly said. "The challenge becomes, you have two other franchises in that market. So it becomes a political thing."

Russ Boychuk knows the power of the Leafs firsthand. Back in the 1980s, to stage an NHL exhibition games at Copps, the Hamilton investment manager had to pay then-Leafs owner Harold Ballard between $75,000 and $100,000.

"We'll have to walk down the aisle with Buffalo on one hand and Toronto on the other hand," Boychuk said. "That's the major hurdle. Until we address that, the NHL won't get a team. As soon as Toronto says, `We want a team in Hamilton,' all 30 members of the board will say, 'Yeah, it's there.'"

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Maple Leafs, declined a request to be interviewed for this series of articles.

 

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