May 082009

Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of RIM, has reportedly made a US$212 million offer to buy the financially struggling Phoenix Coyotes, provided he can move the team to southern Ontario. This isn’t the first time Balsile has surfaced. He was previously thwarted in his attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Nashville Predators, either of whom he would have moved.

The NHL is going to fight this move, at least officially, on procedural grounds. The league contends that it is running the team and has the right to determine the location of its teams. At least on that ground, I tend to agree with the NHL. It should have the right to locate its teams, so as to take advantage of geography and keep its operations strong.

However, I take grave issue with Gary Bettman’s misplaced attempts to grow the game in non-traditional areas, specifically in the US south and southwest. It’s one thing to have a team in Dallas, where the Stars have been successful and have slowly built a fanbase. But teams in Nashville, Phoenix and Florida have had very mixed success and have done almost nothing to ingratiate themselves into the local sporting cultures.

Joe Choker

Let’s face it – hockey is mostly a northern, cold-weather sport. Unlike football, it can’t be played in warm weather so growth potential in southern cities will always be limited. It’s pretty well-suited to its northern cities – Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Boston, Buffalo, NYR, NYI, NJ, Pittsburgh, Philly, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Minnesota. In addition, I think Colorado is well-served having a team.

Consolidate LA and Anaheim into one team because a region that tends to be as blase about sports as southern California shouldn’t have two teams. Keep San Jose for representation in northern California. Carolina has shown they can get rabid about hockey and Dallas is a successful franchise with room for continued growth.

I say abandon the southeast to college sports and Nascar for the time being. Eliminate or move the teams in Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville, Florida/Miami and Tampa Bay. Winnipeg and southern Ontario should get two of the cast-offs. Winnipeg isn’t a huge city but with a proper arena, hockey will flourish there. If Green Bay can support an NFL team, so can Winnipeg.

Focus on continuing to strengthen the game in non-traditional areas such as Carolina, Dallas, LA/Anaheim and San Jose. (I’m not particularly enamored of having teams in sunny California but these are still good population centers for supporting the game and have experienced success in the past).

This plan leaves the NHL with 26 teams overall. Probably still two too many but with room for growth. Build a strong footprint not just a large one.