By James Pearce, WSOE Sports
As the NHL season gets underway, one of the underlying stories will be the future of the Phoenix Coyotes. This past may, the team filed for bankruptcy, following years of being at or near the bottom of the league in attendance. While they gained a hold by making the playoffs in 5 of their first 6 seasons in the desert, they haven’t gone back since 2001, and have in fact only had one winning season since then (38-37-7 in 2008), and have NEVER won their division. It has become abundantly clear that they should not be staying in Phoenix longer.
So, where do I think they’ll be in three years? Lets look.
Because Hockey is only America’s #4 sport (with Soccer and MMA gaining ground fast), it wont work in every market. There seems to be only two ways a team can work out: either be in a traditional hockey city, or a city where there isn’t much competition from other pro sports (such as Raleigh or San Jose). So clearly, their best bet is to go for a city that meets both criteria. The top choices:
Thats right, WInnipeg, Manitoba. As in former home of the Jets. The Jets being that team that moved to phoenix 13 years ago and became the Coyotes. That city has been hungering for a return to the NHL ever since, as evinced by the Coyotes preseason sell-out game there in 2006. They loyally played there from 1972 till the move. The main reason cited for leaving in the first place was a lackluster arena, and those concerns may have been addressed in 2005 with the building of the MTS Centre (come on, Canada, its spelled C-E-N-T-E-R). One problem. It would be the NHL’s smallest arena by 2,000 seats. Not exactly inviting. Gary Bettman has stated that the size of the arena is a big stumbling block for the NHL’s return to Manitoba. And as we’ve learned, what Gary wants, Gary gets. No matter how much it hurts his league. While this is most likely where they’ll end up (again), I get the feeling that after a few years of excitement the city will go back to not attending games, and we’ll be having this same discussion in 2019.
Hamilton! Seems a perfect spot, really. And it seemed almost a certainty until a bankruptcy court denied Canadian Billionaire Jim Balsillie’s bid to buy the team. He’s a man that’s had a bed string of lucky getting a hockey team, this being only his latest failure. He wanted a Hamilton expansion team in 1990 but lost to Ottawa and Tampa Bay, Mario Lemieux pushed him out as a Penguins bidder in 2005, and he even sold season tickets to Hamilton Predators games in 2007, but the Nashville franchise opted to sell to bidder who promised to stay in Tennessee. And its starting to look bleak for his attempt to buy the Coyotes. Its the 9th largest city in Canada (behind both Winnipeg and Quebec City), but has the advantages of being in a very dense metropolitan area (The Golden Horseshoe), and Copps Coliseum, a very nice 19,000 seat arena already built. The biggest issue however may be the neighbors. Located about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, it faces strong opposition from two of the NHL’s most popular teams. This is probably where I see the Coyotes eventually ending up, but maybe 4 or 5 seasons down the line.
3. Quebec City
The former home of the Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) is also hungry for hockey. The odd bit is that the drive for a move here is mainly coming not from the town itself, but russian ultra-billionaire Alexander Medvedev. His problem? Gary Bettman has openly said he would never allow a Russian national to own an NHL team. Which actually seems smart for the league. So unless someone else steps up, Quebec City may have to wait a few years till the NHL expands.
An interesting idea came up this summer. A plan has been put forth by a pair of investors to relocate a team to Toronto’s northern suburbs, in a massive 30,000 seat arena. Half of the tickets would be sold for less than $50, and 25% of profits would go straight to charity. The only problem? An Original Six team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, would do everything they could to block it. Even though a city like this could easily support two teams. And like Mr. Bettman, they’d get what they want.
5. Las Vegas
A city with 2,000,000 people and no pro sports??? SOUNDS GREAT! Oh except that city’s in the desert and the NHL tries to distance itself from gambling. Sorry, Nevada.
There are some other cities that have NHL Histories, Lack of competition, or an NHL-ready arena, but none both. Other cites have been listed as Cleveland (The Mistake by the Pond by the Lake has a ring to it, but not in the way they want), Portland, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, and Hartford (Ha… Ha…). And of course there would be awesome votes for making them the Charleston Chiefs. While you could make arguments for all of these cities, the negatives would far outweigh the positives. And the NHL is in no place to be taking risks and expanding markets. They just need to protect the teams they have.
My bet? Time to start saving for tickets, Hamilton. The Tigers are coming back!