A Logical Look at NHL Relocation: Why Hamilton, Ontario Makes Sense

Shane Morin-FarrawayCorrespondent IFebruary 9, 2009

With recent word that both Arizona Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick and Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver have both taken a look at the Phoenix Coyotes financial records and taken a pass, this may be the beginning of the end for the Phoenix Coyotes.

In addition to Phoenix, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Nashville Predators, and Atlanta Thrashers have all been rumoured to have mild-to-significant ownership questions and problems in recent seasons. Things in Nashville have been so bad that they have gone as far as purchasing tickets to its own games so that it meets the required attendance figures for NHL teams looking for financial assistance.

Although relocation is something that the NHL says it isn`t considering, it`s painfully clear that Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors will need to discuss potential replacement owners for many, if not all, of those franchises, as well as possible relocation.

Relocation will be a tricky subject for the NHL to deal with. On the one hand, Gary Bettman, and by extension the NHL, does not want to move from major American metropolitan areas such as Phoenix, Miami, and Atlanta for fearing of losing revenue and name recognition in such a big market, although it is clear that the NHL in those markets is a minor player in the local sport pantheon.

It also seems as if Gary Bettman does not want to tarnish his legacy of expansion in the American South. Outside of the Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Minnesota Wild, Bettman`s extension into Miami, Nashville, and Atlanta have been complete failures, although Bettman would never acknowledge such a thing.

With Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, and Phoenix in mind, let us explore potential cities for relocation, as well as the pros and cons that could come along with such a move.

Seattle, WashingtonMetropolitan Population: 3.9 Million

It may not be widely known, but the first American team to capture a Stanley Cup were the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917, before the NHL existed.

What attracts the NHL to any potential relocation to Seattle is the lore that it is the major metropolitan market in the American Northwest. Seattle has the accomodations necessary to accept any potential relocated team with Key Arena, empty since the Seattle Sonics moved to Oklahoma City this past summer.

Seattle could also potentially have a major geographic rivalry against the Vancouver Canucks, but aside from an already built arena and a theoretical rivalry against Vancouver, there is not much else that Seattle could potentially offer to a team looking to re-locate. Outside of Vancouver, which is 119 miles away, the city does not offer any other potential major rivals, something that the NHL has said it is trying to focus on.

Seattle seems like a far-off choice for relocation, or expansion, and the city will continue to grieve the loss of its Sonics by drowning its sorrows with lattes and macchiatos.

Las Vegas, NevadaMetropolitan Population: 2 million

Las Vegas has recently been in the hockey limelight, with word that either an All-Star game or an outdoor classic could take place there.

Las Vegas has become known in the last ten-to-fifteen years as a boom town, but with the current financial crisis effecting everyone, would the citizens of Las Vegas be willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for an arena?

Las Vegas seems like a pipe dream for the NHL, and pro sports in general. The city seems content on maintaining its status quo—free of professional sports, with perhaps only baseball breaking in to that market when if it ever expands again.

There are many downfalls for any potential team in Las Vegas, the most obvious being its lack of an arena. Unlike Seattle though, Las Vegas would possess some better oppurtunites with potential geographic rivals, with Los Angeles and Anaheim being 228 miles and 273 miles away respectively. Phoenix would also be a close rival, only 300 miles away, that is, if Phoenix wasn`t the team relocating to Las Vegas.

Kansas City, Missouri: Metropolitan Population, 1.9 million

Kansas City, thanks to Boots Del Baggio, has long been rumoured as a potential relocation site for any NHL franchise, the most recent being the Nashville Predators.

Kansas City, unlike any other city on this list, has the best chance at relocation—and it is not because of their rabid fan base.

Kansas City currently holds a modern, state of the art arena called the Sprint Center which is aching to be used. What is of note in all of this is that the Spring Center is owned by sports conglomerate AEG, a company which owns the Los Angeles Kings.

It is rumoured that because of this connection, Kansas City has the best shot at securing an NHL team, and it would make sense given the resources it already has at its disposal.

What could potentially work against any possible Kansas City team is the fact that it did have a team that lasted two seasons, from 1974 to 1976. That team would eventually become NHL's Colorado Rockies, who in turn are now the New Jersey Devils.

A Kansas City NHL team would also need to battle the Royals and Chiefs for a stake in a metropolitan area which is smaller than Las Vegas or Seattle.

Although Kansas City may be the city with the most to offer in terms of facilities, it is the lack of fans and knowledge which could potentially deter any relocation to that area.

Winnipeg, Manitoba: Metropolitan Population, 694,000

For sixteen years, Winnipegers had the priviledge of watching Dale Hawerchuk, Bob Essensa, Thomas Steen, and Teemu Selanne bring passion to one of Canada's quirkier cities. Winnipeg, although not a top power like their rivals the Edmonton Oilers or Calgary Flames, solidified its place in hockey circles with their passionate fans.

Winnipeg fell on hard times in the early 90s, and were forced to move to Phoenix. This has not detered their fans from hoping for NHL hockey to return, yet Winnipeg would have to solve a few issues before any possible team could, or would, return to the 'Gateway City.'

For one, Winnipeg has the smallest metropolitan population. Although the NHL performs admirably in smaller cities such as Edmonton, Columbus, and Buffalo, the board of governors may be weary to return to a small locale such as Winnipeg.

Winnipeg must also address an upgrade in their facilities. Although the MTS Centre is only five years old, it seats only about 15,000 spectators, roughly 2,500 short of the NHL minimum.

Winnipegers would also have to do some soul searching—would they consider welcoming an NHL team, or are they content and satisfied with a successful AHL franchise?

Time and economics will tell if Winnipeg could become a major player in any possible relocation.

Hamilton, Ontario: Metropolitan Population, 660, 000

Hamilton has long been rumoured as a possible destination should any team choose to relocate, and many times have Hamiltonians have been led, falsely, into believing they could acquire a team.

Many teams, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Hartford Whalers, Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, and now the Nashville Predators have all been rumoured at one time or another of possibly moving to Hamilton. In addition to these heartbreaks, Hamilton was left without an expansion team in 1991 when the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning were awarded expansion franchises over them.

Hamilton faces many problems when it comes to a potential NHL team in the city. For one, the Toronto Maple Leafs control the territorial rights for the Hamilton area, meaning that should a team relocate, it would be forced to pay an enormous sum to the Leafs, one of hockey's richest teams.

There has also been pressure from Buffalo in regards to ticket sales perhaps being cut in half should Hamilton acquire a team.

Hamilton must also put millions into a new arena. Copps Coliseum, Hamilton's twenty- year-old arena, must be renovated to meet NHL standards.

Although Hamilton has always been perceived as a long-shot by many, it seems like a logical place to move to based on three simple criteria that the NHL could apply: population, ownership, geography.

Although Hamilton boasts the lowest metropolitan population of the list of potential relocation markets, one must take into account the surrounding areas. With cities such as St. Catherines (390,000), Brantford (90,000), Kitchener-Waterloo (451,000), Burlington/Oakville (439,000), and London (457,000) all within an hour's drive from Hamilton, Hamilton has many more opportunities to grow a fan base than Kansas City or Winnipeg, with roughly 2.5 million people in the surrounding area.

When it comes to any potential relocation to the Hamilton area, Jim Balsillie is the name of the potential buyer who could relocate a team to the Steel City. Balsillie, the owner of Research in Motion, inventor of the Blackberry device, and rabid hockey fan, would help renovate the depleted Copps Coliseum.

Should Balsillie bring a team to Hamilton, the city has already publicly stated that they would sell Balsillie Copps Coliseum for the one dollar. Balsillie plans to renovate the arena to NHL standards, and was willing to put over $250 million of his own money into the arena in the summer of 2007 when he was trying to purchase the Nashville Predators.

Geography should also play a logical role for any decision regarding relocation. Hamilton, unlike its immediate competition, is closer in geography to many other NHL markets.

Hamilton is only 41 miles to Toronto, 96 to Buffalo, 199 to Detroit, and 322 to Ottawa. With the NHL-stated goal that geographical rivalries would help to boost interest, there is no doubt that any potential team in Hamilton would become logical rivals to both Buffalo and Toronto, not to mention the cut in travel costs by being so close to so many teams.

Relocation, it seems, can no longer be ignored.

With most of Bettman's southern American teams in financial straights, perhaps the Board of Governors should look north again, as it seems that there are many who are ready, able, and willing to make hockey work efficiently in locales where it would be appreciated.


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