We love the NHL. Why won’t it love us back?

Canada still provides more than half the players, but the cost of offending our fans is zero

Anyone who has ever been jilted recognizes the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” line for what it is: a face-saving fib. So when Gary Bettman tells Canadians that his Herculean efforts to thwart Jim Balsillie’s attempts to bring an NHL team to Hamilton aren’t about the city, province, or country, but rather a need to respect and safeguard league rules, it smacks of a cop-out. So too his contention that what is really at stake in the bankruptcy court battle over the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes is the league’s “covenant” with its fans. “When you have fans invest in a franchise emotionally and financially, you don’t just give up on them when times get tough,” the NHL commissioner said on his satellite radio show this past week. Tell that to the people of Winnipeg and Quebec City.

But where the NHL commissioner really crosses over from little-white-lie to pants-on-fire territory is his continued insistence that the situation in Phoenix is “fixable.” In the 13 years since the Jets “relocated” to the Arizona desert, the Coyotes have burned through three owners and piled up more than US$300 million in losses. The team has consistently ranked near the bottom in both the standings and attendance (29th out of 30 teams this season, despite offering some of the cheapest tickets in the league). And even a sparkling new arena, built at considerable taxpayer expense, hasn’t made the franchise any more viable.

The truth is that the Coyotes will be moving, and all indications are that it will happen sooner rather than later. But before Canadians get too caught up in the drive to “make it seven” domestic franchises, there is another self-evident fact to recognize. The team won’t be coming anywhere near this side of the border, except as visitors.

That’s because, for all intents and purposes, the National Hockey League’s executives and owners view Canada with a disdain that creeps close to contempt. We still supply more than half the players—and the lion’s share of the hard-core fans—but this country is too small-time for their ambitions and avarice. Relocating a team from the 12th-largest TV market in the U.S. to Hamilton, or anywhere else in Canada, won’t help the NHL’s never-ending Holy Grail quest for the type of rich American network deal enjoyed by everything from golf to NASCAR. (The league’s current regular season carrier, Versus, is unavailable in 40 million households. NBC was given the rights to playoff broadcasts for free by the league, sharing the profits.)
And in some perverse ways, another successful Canadian franchise could make the bottom line worse. With player compensation now tied to league revenues, a box-office winner might raise the salary cap (US$56.7 million this season) and more importantly, the $40.7 million “floor” teams are obligated to spend. Further bad news for clubs in Atlanta, Tampa, Nashville, Florida, Dallas, and Long Island that were struggling to survive even before the economic downturn. And if the Coyotes were to end up in or around Hamilton, you could add Buffalo—a team that has already gone bankrupt once, and draws heavily from southern Ontario—to that list, too.

So instead, the NHL will pull out all the stops to (temporarily) keep the Coyotes in Phoenix—propping up the franchise and cobbling together bids from whatever operator flies by in the darkness. (To stop Balsillie from buying and moving the Nashville Predators in 2007, the league turned to William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, now facing six years in jail after pleading guilty to fraud.) Once enough time has elapsed to figure out a way to break the unbreakable 30-year lease at the Arena, the team will move to Kansas City—where a new arena sits empty—or perhaps Las Vegas. And the league will mount yet another doomed attempt to establish a beachhead in a “non-traditional” market.

All the while, Bettman and the league will be careful to keep things sunny, and hold out the distant promise of expansion to their disgruntled Canadian fans. Forget the acres of empty seats you see on TV. Or the fact that you can’t even find the highlights on most American channels. Revenues and ratings are growing by leaps and bounds, they say. The game has never been healthier.

And when the next Phoenix, or Nashville, or Pittsburgh comes along and the league’s bunkum is again exposed before the courts, remember the NHL’s central operating truth. The cost of offending Canadian fans remains zilch. They took away two teams, and cancelled an entire season, and we still came back. Like the wallflower waiting by the telephone, we’re always available. Desperate even. And Bettman isn’t yet willing to admit that we’re the best he can do.

Congratulations to Maclean’s senior writer Michael Friscolanti for his recent award from the Canadian Association of Journalists. His story on last year’s listeria outbreak, “How safe is your food?”, won the top prize in the “print feature” category at the CAJ awards, which honour the best investigative journalism in Canada.

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