Thursday, October 05, 2006

Despite the words they still believe in Ontario

The ink hasn't even dried on the deal and despite the comments to the contrary, the belief in Southern Ontario seems to be that the Leafs will soon have some competition for the hockey dollar.

With Jim Balsillie's purchase of the Penguins, currently of Pittsburgh, the always exciteable hockey fans of Southern Ontario seem to be picking out china patterns and planning invitations for the debut of a relocated franchise.

Yet, during the press conference with Mario Lemieux to seal the deal, the usual NHL line was read line by line, Pittsburgh is a wonderful city, a rich hockey heritage and it's time to get a new arena deal in place.

While Balsillie didn't guarantee that the Pens were staying, the impression seems to be that once the arena issue is finally taken care of, then hockey will once again remain strong in Pittsburgh.

With one plan hinging on the participation of a company called Isle of Capri who are seeking a slot machine licence for the city, Balsillie hedged his bets by throwing his support behind their bid. The city of Pittsburgh has an alternate plan in place if things go sideways on the slots issue, but Balsillie didn't seem to offer as much support, if any to the back up plan.

The Isle of Capri option, could very well be the last gasp for hockey in Pittsburgh and that apparently comes to a head later this fall. Hockey fans of Southern Ontario should be watching the table closely, if the city folds their hand on the Isle of Capri plan then hockey could be heading north after all.

All of the talk of the Penguin purchase has once again rekindled the dreams of a second franchise in the Leaf Nation territory, Eric Duhatshek of the Globe added a bit of kindling, a few gusts of wind and some starter fluid to get the Penguin story in Motion.

Duhatschek: Why Toronto needs another NHL team
Globe and Mail Update

Thursday, October 5, 2006
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Now that the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins to Research In Motion's Jim Balsillie is official, there are those who believe the National Hockey League team will survive in the Pennsylvania city for years to come; and others who think it's only a matter of time before they move north of the border.

Since the Penguins' sale was so complicated and the new arena waters remain so muddied, it is largely pointless to debate that question now. It'll be months, possibly years, before the Penguins' final resting place is decided — and there are many factors, beyond even Balsillie's control, that will ultimately determine their long-term fate.

What does need to be debated again is how ridiculously underserved the Toronto hockey market is at the moment — and why the league desperately needs to put a second franchise in the Golden Horseshoe.

If it's the Penguins, great: That would put a trio of the game's best young talents (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal) in a market that would appreciate their abilities and provide ample fan and corporate support for their attempts to build the NHL's next great dynasty.

If it's not the Penguins and it's someone else, that would be fine too.
Now, obviously, the biggest single stumbling block would be the Leafs' opposition to the move — and under NHL bylaws, they could block any attempt to enter their market on the grounds of territorial rights infringement.

This, of course, would represent just another example of the short-sighted thinking that has the organization 39 years removed from its last Stanley Cup championship, with no end to the drought in sight.

The Leafs are absolutely bulletproof in their market; it wouldn't matter if there were three NHL teams competing with them. In this world, there are two types of hockey fans — the ones who love the Leafs and the ones who hate them. The ones who love the Leafs will always support them — and they've proven that through the years, gobbling up tickets during the embarrassment of the Harold Ballard era; and continuing to demonstrate their love of the team through all the ups and downs of the decades that followed.

Red Kelly said it pretty well the other day: Leaf fans are the most loyal and knowledgeable in the game. Now, there is no tangible proof to show how smart they are, but there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate their blind fidelity to the team. When the Leafs' games are televised on Hockey Night In Canada, ratings soar. When someone else is featured, they slump.

None of that would change, even in the presence of a second team in the marketplace — and for proof, consider the example of New York, where the Rangers reign supreme, even though the Islanders were the model franchise of the 1980s and the Devils the model franchise of the 1990s.

Despite the fact that the Rangers struggled through as many hard times and down periods as the Leafs did over the period, their fan support never waned.

That's mostly because of their history as an Original Six team. As a brand, the Rangers can't be damaged, no matter how many grossly overpaid, underachieving players passed through their line-up over the years.

A second team in the metropolitan Toronto area would galvanize all the Leaf haters into one faction and presumably, put them squarely behind the new team, in the same way the New York Mets came along at the start of the 1960s to give New York baseball fans an alternative to the Yankees.

If anything, the presence of a second team in Toronto would only enhance the franchise — by adding one more natural geographic rival — and if they ever met in the playoffs, it would represent great drama, a Gardiner Expressway series between the downtown Leafs and the Mississauga-based newcomers.

Because let's face it: At a time when interest in the NHL remains lukewarm in so many cities south of the 49th parallel, the demand in five of the six Canadian cities (except Ottawa) is unprecedented All those people living from Oshawa to Oakville and spilling out into Aurora and points south and west deserve a chance to buy an actual ticket to watch an actual NHL game — and most can't do it, because the demand is so high and the supply so limited.

Maybe the most telling note of all was there on the Penguins' website Thursday morning, after the news of the sale was posted. Just above the photo of Balsillie and the details of the purchase agreement was a two-line stream of copy promoting the Penguins' next game against the Red Wings, this coming Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

It promised: 'Great seats still remain.'

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