You said you didn’t give a **** about hockey and I never saw someone say that before. You held my hand as we walked home the long way you were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.
The Tragically Hip
In honour of the second round of the NHL playoffs, which are about to begin, I have a few thoughts about the future of hockey in Canada. I thank you in advance for indulging this diversion from my usual fare.
The internet has been a wonderful resource for modern history. This blog regularly features National Film Board films from the online archive, and media institutions such as Time magazine have made their collections available to the world. For awhile the CBC has offered a great deal of material in their own digital archive. While looking around, I came across a feature on the departure of Candian professional teams. The Jets (now Coyotes), and Nordiques (now Avalanche), are the two most recent examples. On the site you can find radio and television reports about the WHA, and the loss of both teams. There is also information about the Oilers troubles, and bitterness of the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup title that came one year after the team abandoned Quebec.
It is very strange to me that Canada has only 6 NHL teams (out of 30) when it is the leading hotbed of hockey internationally. Junior hockey does well in many small communities, but people in this country have shown that they won’t support professional hockey that is second rate (see the AHL for example). The most recent story on this topic concerned a meeting of interested Toronto investors with NHL VP Bill Daly. They want to place a team in Vaughn, Ontario. A great many commentators believe that a second team could thrive in southern Ontario based on the population base and the passion for hockey. Of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t fans of that idea since this is their major market (though the team is popular in many other parts of the country thanks to their dominance of Hockey Night in Canada). With the NHL, among other sports leagues, likely facing economic difficulties in the coming years, it makes sense to examine alternative ideas for the league. This leads me to one question: How many teams could Canada realistically support? Here’s a list of the 6 NHL teams, their 2009 per game attendance (% of capacity), and the population of their cities (2006 Census):
Calgary, 19,289 (100%), 1,079,310
Edmonton, 16,839 (100%), 1,034,945
Montreal, 21,273 (100%), 3,635,571
Ottawa, 18,949 (105%), 1,168,788
Toronto, 19,312 (102.7%), 5,113,149
Vancouver, 18,630 (101%), 2,116,581
That list demonstrates that the Canadian franchises are quite successful at the gate, and that a city needs to be able to provide 16000-20000 fans per game to fit in this group. That Toronto total includes Mississauga and the rest of the main GTA (but not Hamilton-Burlington). These are the 6 largest metropolitan areas in the country. I think a very convincing argument could be made for another team in Toronto, maybe in the aforementioned Mississauga (668,549). Here are the next 7 largest metro areas along with the two major Saskatchewan cities just for fun:
Quebec City, 715,515
St. Catherines-Niagara, 390,317
On the surface the drop off is pretty steep from 6-7 and beyond. Returns to Winnipeg and Quebec have been floated several times. Both Quebec City and Winnipeg lost their franchises due in part to financial difficulties. Those problems occured in the old NHL when cost certainty was a dream. With the new financial model in the league it is much more likely that a team in a smaller market, with a strong fan base, would be able to thrive. Before the lockout Edmonton, and Calgary were struggling with rising salaries, yet they are now among the most successful franchises in the league. A new league model means reexamining the potential for the NHL in Canada.
If we accept that teams in smaller Canadian markets would be more successful now, then Winnipeg and Quebec are obvious considerations. When Jim Balsille began accepting down payments on season’s tickets in Hamilton (part of a failed attempt to buy the Nashville Predators) 10000 people signed up. There are very many people in southern Ontario who aren’t Maple Leafs fans. Some like the Canadiens, some the Senators, and many follow teams from all over the league. People living in Hamilton, London, KW, and Niagara don’t share their identity with the city of Toronto even if they are nearby. I absolutely believe that a second team in one of those communities would find a fan base. Obviously, there are many large issues to be sorted out before that happens, like an arena, satisfying the Leafs and Sabres, figuring out where the team would come from (relocation or expansion) and finding solid ownership (I hear RIM is sort of successful), but the idea is workable. Putting teams in the four communities I’ve mentioned (Mississauga/Vaughn, Winnipeg, Quebec City, and Hamilton/KW/London) would bring the Canadian portion of the league to 10 teams. I can also stretch my imagination to include teams in Halifax and Saskatchewan (they whole-heartedly support the Riders, why not a hockey team?), which gives us 12 Canadian and likely 18 American teams. Doesn’t that reflect the identity of hockey in North America a bit better?
I understand that this will probably never happen, but I think fans of the game should continue to make our preferences known. The NHL has, at times, actually listened to what its fans and critics have to say about the game. I believe that at least 2 of the cities I’ve mentioned will have teams in the next 10 years. The forces just seem to be moving that way. Here’s my theoretical NHL, for fun. Oddly, I kept the top 21 teams in attendance and three other random teams from the bottom 9 based on history and geography. You could definitely argue which ones belong, and if any of the ones I’ve included could be relocated elsewhere.
Thanks for bearing with my diversion.
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