Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad week for Toronto hockey writers

Bad week for Toronto hockey writers

By Evan Weiner

December 12, 2009

(New York, N. Y.) -- It has not been a good couple days for the Toronto sports media, rather the Toronto hockey fan sportswriters. National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman met with Quebec Premier Jean Charest and the Quebec premier is under the impression that Bettman would like to see a franchise in Quebec City.

Then came the story that Bettman would prefer expanding the league rather than relocating teams and on top of that there seems to be a group ready to buy the financially troubled Phoenix Coyotes willing to keep the team in Glendale, Arizona.
The stars are not aligning for the Toronto hockey scribes who were waving their red and white pom poms last summer and basically begging a United States bankruptcy judge to let Jim Balsillie pick up the Coyotes franchise and move the team to Hamilton, Ontario.

That didn’t happen as Judge Redfield Baum decided to let the NHL handle the sale of the Coyotes franchise. Balsillie, one of the BlackBerry founders, appealed to Canadian nationalism in his bid to buy the Coyotes and the Toronto hockey writers acted as if they were a Balsillie flack instead of journalists who researched sports league’s constitutions or previous denials of sports teams ownership transfers or relocation such as Major League baseball saying twice no to Edwin Gaylord in the 1980s in his attempt to but the Texas Rangers because he owned a “superstation” in Dallas and Gaylord’s Dallas TV station would air Rangers games nationally and devalue other baseball TV contracts.

That opened the door for George W. Bush to eventually join a group that would buy the Rangers in 1989. A little research would have helped Toronto hockey writers understand how leagues operate.

Now the Toronto writers are facing a dilemma. What if Quebec City really has the wherewithal to finance a new arena? In 1995, Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut and Bettman tried to persuade Quebec politicians to come up with public financing for a new arena to replace Le Colisee and failed. Aubut sold the team to Charlie Lyons and Ascent and the franchise ended up in Denver, Colorado.

The Toronto writers have been tearing apart Bettman for years about a perceived perception that Bettman has anti-Canadian stance and never include in their critiques of the “New York lawyer” or the “diminutive” commissioner helped prevent the Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington from selling his team to Houston sports owner Les Alexander who planned to take the team to Texas in 1998. Bettman also helped broker a deal to keep the Ottawa Senators in the Canadian capital, although technically the Senators home arena is in Kanata, which is west of Ottawa.

Bettman also fought to keep franchises in Pittsburgh, Nashville and Glendale, Arizona (Phoenix). He pushed for Edmonton and Calgary to get a share of the Alberta hockey lottery.

Under Bettman’s watch, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Hartford (three former World Hockey Association teams) have relocated. Quebec City to Denver in 1995, Winnipeg to Phoenix (now Glendale) in 1996 and Hartford to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1997. All three cities simply did not have state of the art 1990s hockey arenas. Connecticut Governor John Rowland, who ended up in prison, seemed smitten with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft snooping around Hartford looking for a stadium for his National Football League team and didn’t really play ball with Hartford Whalers owner Peter Karmanos.

Rowland not only lost a hockey team but probably Compuware jobs as Karmanos wanted to establish a Connecticut outpost for his computer company.

Rowland lost the Whalers and Kraft never really had any intention of moving his Patriots from the Boston metropolitan area and simply used Rowland as leverage to get a new stadium in Foxboro next to his old stadium. Kraft is further developing that property in Foxboro. He may be using United States government stimulus funding for his project.

The Toronto media, at least one of the hockey fans, er writers, Randy Sportak is urging the NHL to go into Toronto or Hamilton and while Quebec City or Winnipeg would be great additions to the league, Toronto deserves a second team. Sportak is also suggesting that the league move the New York Islanders or the Nashville Predators to southern Ontario.

Lazy journalism on Sportak’s part if he thinks the Islanders will move. Sportak probably has no idea how lucrative the Islanders cable TV deal with Cablevision’s Charles Dolan really is. The deal runs until 2031 and it behooves Dolan, the owner of Madison Square Garden, the National Basketball Association’s Knicks and the NHL’s Rangers and the MSG Network, to keep paying. You see Dolan needs the Islanders to stay in Uniondale or move to the proposed Brooklyn arena or the proposed building that could end up on Shea Stadium’s former site or in the junkyards at Willets Point adjacent to the US National Tennis Center to keep his cable TV franchises on Long island.

Here is how it works. Dolan can go before any town, village or city board on the island in both Nassau and Suffolk County when his cable TV systems franchise licensing agreement is up and say I have two things other cable operators don’t have. The Islanders and News 12. Dolan uses the same strategy in New Jersey with the Devils and News 12. Dolan is a major benefactor of New Jersey Devils hockey.
That is how sports operators. Islanders owner Charles Wang is hoping that he can develop the area around the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. If he cannot, you can be sure that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who found funds for new baseball stadiums for the Yankees and Mets, will be chatting up Brooklyn and Queens with Wang.

No matter how lucrative the Toronto market might be, and this is no slight about Toronto, T. O. is not the Big Apple even if hockey is king in Toronto.
There is no suggestion at present that Nashville is ready to give up on the Predators.

If there is expansion, Quebec City and Winnipeg are on top of the charts for the NHL. In fact, the founder of the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League Alexander Medvedev, the Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Russian Gazprom energy company, thinks that Quebec City is long overdue for an NHL team. An expansion of the league would mean a good deal of money for NHL owners. Even if the league sells the franchises for $150 million each, which is probably a low figure, two franchises would mean the NHL owners would split the $300 million 30 ways and give each owner $10 million.

It has not been a good week for the Toronto sports media. Quebec City wants an NHL team and Gary Bettman is listening, the NHL favors expansion over relocation, New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner wants a hockey team in his proposed Brooklyn building, presumably the Islanders, and Ice Edge wants the Coyotes and has a plan to use Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as a second home for five games which should cause the Toronto writers to break out the pom poms again. But Saskatoon is not Southern Ontario nor is Quebec City and that is a problem for the Toronto scribes.

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