If the group that hopes to build a 20,000-seat arena in suburban Toronto can get its shovels in the ground by this spring, it would provide the NHL a lifeline to get out of Phoenix and into a viable hockey market.
Depending upon who is making the predictions, the Phoenix Coyotes are playing their last season in the desert. That’s because the NHL has no intention of continuing to prop the team up and the City of Glendale has even less interest in continuing to write checks to keep a team few people want to see and one it knows will ultimately leave anyway.
Oh yeah, and there’s the tiny matter of not being able to find anyone in his or her right mind who would be willing to both buy the team and pledge to keep it in Arizona for the long term. Something about rich guys not wanting to have to stroke checks for $30 million of their own money a year to cover their losses.
So this is where Graeme Roustan and his group potentially come into the picture. If they can get the approval of the Town of Markham to start building – which apparently is a formality at this point – that will give the NHL a viable spot to land the Coyotes in two years when the arena will conceivably be ready.
But instead of having to suffer two more years in the desert while the Toronto arena is being built, the NHL could and should put the team in Hamilton for two years with absolutely no illusion to the good people of that city it would be a permanent arrangement. Fair? No, but Hamilton’s chances of ever getting a team are declining with every passing year. You see, putting another team in Toronto is good for business in the NHL. Putting a team in the geographical territory owned by the Buffalo Sabres would be bad for business and it would betray and enrage billionaire Terry Pegula, who is well on his way to saving that franchise from peril.
So what the league could do is put the Coyotes in Hamilton for two years, where they would share Copps Coliseum with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American League. (Or have it all to themselves if those predicting the Bulldogs are primed to leave Hamilton after this season are correct.) In order to pacify Pegula and the Sabres, the league could make it clear this is a temporary arrangement and the Coyotes would ensure they would never play a home game on the same night as the Sabres and would try to cluster their home dates around Sabres road trips. To mitigate the effect on the Sabres, the Coyotes could be one of the teams to start the season in Europe the next two years, which would subtract two home dates right there. And perhaps they could even play 10 home games at the John Labatt Centre in London. That would leave the Coyotes with 29 regular season games at Copps each of the next two seasons.
This would force the Coyotes to undoubtedly operate at a loss, but if Mr. Roustan and his associates want to be in the club badly enough, the NHL would be in a position to tell them to absorb the cost.
The NHL could wait until the suburban Toronto arena is completed and get the Coyotes millstone out from around its neck. By the time the NHL has to make a decision on Phoenix, at the very least the Markham arena will be under construction, so the league could even award the franchise to Toronto this summer if it chose to do that, then begin playing in the new building for the 2014-15 season.
After all, there is ample precedent for the NHL doing such things. When Peter Karmanos decided to move the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina after the 1996-97 season, the newly minted Hurricanes played 80 miles away in Greensboro for two seasons while they waited for their new arena to be built. The San Jose Sharks played their first two seasons at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and the Ottawa Senators played their first three-and-a-half years at the Civic Center before moving to their massive rink in the suburbs.
And if, for whatever reason, something goes awry with the second Toronto rink or the league deems Roustan and his group to not be suitable owners, it would still provide ample time for the league to find another permanent landing place for the Coyotes. Chances of that happening, though, are slim since the league’s head office knows Roustan well from his previous negotiations to purchase the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. If this Roustan fellow were not able to pass the league’s smell test, it would have been made clear to him by now.
Almost everyone agrees the Coyotes are ultimately not going to survive. And a lot of people who aren’t affiliated with the Maple Leafs think it’s only a matter of time before there is a second, revenue-generating team in the largest hockey market in the world.
The prospect of taking care of both of those eventualities in one tidy package should appeal to the NHL. At the very least, it should give the board of governors grist for the mill when they assemble for their meetings in Palm Beach next week. This way they could actually do something about realigning the league knowing the fate of the Coyotes.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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