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Stephen Brunt

Coyotes first in NHL's stampede to Canada Add to ...

Maybe Jim Balsillie's problem was that he didn't think big enough. Make It Seven? Heck, how about Make It Nine?

The rather predictable events in Phoenix over the past 48 hours, coming almost exactly a year after Jerry Moyes took the Coyotes into bankruptcy with the intent of passing the franchise to Balsillie, and to Hamilton, underscore a truth obvious even to the desperate propagandists in the NHL's head office.

There aren't a heck of a lot of palatable options around right now for ailing NHL teams that don't involved relocation to Canada.

Check that: there aren't any.

Consider that Jerry Reinsdorf, who clearly has little passion for becoming involved in professional hockey, was deemed the best choice by the league and by the city fathers of Glendale to become the 'Yotes new owner, even though massive concessions were involved, even though precious little of Reinsdorf's own money was involved, even though there was a five-year out built into the deal.

Still, that was better than whatever the Ice Edge folks were putting on the table, to the degree that there really wasn't much debate at all. The vote was nearly unanimous.

Now Reinsdorf and his cold feet are gone - the looming battle with the Goldwater Institute alone would have given him hives - and Ice Edge is back in, by default, the absolute last-gasp possibility for delaying the inevitable.

Everyone who thinks that the league could have saved itself a whole lot of trouble by brokering a deal with Balsillie, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres, is feeling awfully smug right now. But still, fixating on that single screw-up and this single franchise obscures a larger point.

In Winnipeg, David Thomson awaits, one of the richest people on earth, ready and willing to buy the Coyotes or another team and move them into the MTS Centre. Would the team be profitable in those cozy confines? Would Winnipeggers ante up in the necessary numbers for high-priced NHL tickets? Hard to know, but since Thomson isn't asking for guarantees or hand-outs or subsidies or special tax zones, it apparently doesn't matter all that much to him.

A five-minute conversation with Marcel Aubut, mover, shaker, backroom political operative, corporate lawyer, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, former owner of Les Nordiques and former vice-chairman of the NHL board of governors, will convince you pretty fast that a new, government-underwritten arena in Quebec City is all but a foregone conclusion.

And unlike the building in Kansas City - strange that no one's talking about that much anymore - it is pretty certain that if they build it, someone will come.

Meanwhile, there are at least two groups of financial heavy-hitters jockeying for position to win what is perceived as the biggest prize - a second NHL team in Toronto - both of which have made their intentions known to the league, and have not been discouraged in their quest.

Of course there are a couple of rather large obstacles to surmount: the construction of a new arena, and the territorial claims of the Maple Leafs. But the folks involved are of the calibre not easily dismissed, and they seem to believe strongly that it's only a matter of time until they are given the green light. (The league would still prefer to auction a Southern Ontario expansion team to the highest bidder not named Balsillie, but now may be forced to use the market to solve a more pressing problem.)

Barring a spit-and-binder-twine deal with Ice Edge, which even if announced could unravel just as fast as the Reinsdorf deal did, Phoenix-to-Winnipeg to start the 2010-11 season seems a reasonable bet - so reasonable, that a schedule has already been drawn up for just that eventuality.

And who else might be crossing the great unguarded border?

The Atlanta Thrashers, certainly. There is almost no there there? right now. And of late, a new name has entered the mix: the New York Islanders. Whispers are that for a price, you could have them, and move them all but instantly.

The conversation would be different if the Canadian dollar was hovering around 65 cents, rather than at its current heights - and the NHL salary cap would be rather different as well. Even at that, there's no assurance that new teams here - including a second Toronto team - would represent a licence to print money. Is there really that much more national and regional television revenue, for instance, to spread around?

But there are willing franchise buyers, there are willing ticket buyers, there is a thriving hockey culture. Look south to potential markets, and you'll find none of the above.

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