Saturday, May 26, 2007

Waiting for an arena of dreams

They’re dreaming the dream in the Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge areas today, as local Billionaire (and really, how many communities in Canada have one of those hanging around town) David Balsillie works to finish off the details of his purchase of the Nashville Predators.

Ever since the deal was announced by current Preds owner Craig Leipold earlier this week, Balsillie has been keeping a rather low profile. Perhaps having learned a lesson or two from the public dramatics of the eventually discarded Penguins sale, Balsillie is allowing the discussion on the Preds to remain mainly in the Nashville area.

That however hasn’t stopped the locals from his hometown from looking over the local roadmaps, calling up the past local land acquisitions on their Blackberries and coming up with one plus one really might make two.

The Kitchener Waterloo Record did a bit of legwork for the locals over the weekend with an article that highlighted a recent land purchase by Research in Motion (Balsillies' daytime job when he isn’t out there spending millions on hockey clubs), which saw the computer giant pick up some industrial land in nearby Cambridge, nearby the busiest highway in the nation (some say the world) the 401, and right close to what’s described as the region’s International airport.

Some 26 acres which cost the computer company 3.8 million, relative coffee money when you consider the 220 million which Balsillie personally paid for the under supported predators franchise.

Most importantly of all for the land package, it’s measured out as 82 kilometers away from Toronto, 2 klicks past their territorial veto. (You can bet Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will be out there with odometers and tape measures as soon as possible, just to make sure.)

With Toronto growing out to the North and West and a growing London, Woodstock and Stratford just down that highway to the West, they’re thinking big in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Thinking that that they’re soon to be the centre (or in deference to Toronto, the sub centre we guess) of southern Ontario’s hockey universe.

The NHL needs to begin to retrench its product in those locations where a knowledge and love of the game will provide for a stable and receptive fan base. They could do a lot worse than letting the Kitchener-Waterloo billionaire take his soon to be Cats north, in fact, some would say that there’s more than a few more teams ready for a northward migration.

An NHL team for Cambridge? Well, we can dream, can't we?
(May 25, 2007)

An NHL team in Cambridge? Please, say it will be so.

"I would love to see that happen," said city councillor Karl Kiefer yesterday. "That would be the cat's meow."

Actually, it'd be more like the growl of the Nashville Predators, who are to be sold to local billionaire Jim Balsillie and could be moved to Cambridge.

Yesterday, such wild speculation raced through the city that straddles the 401 on a hot day in May.

Let's start with Mr. Balsillie. You remember him, don't you?

Research In Motion dude.

Co-chief executive of the merry BlackBerry makers from Waterloo.

Loves pucks. Lots of bucks.

Backed out of buying the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175 million US last December. Didn't like the conditions the NHL slapped on the purchase.

The NHL wanted the Pens to stay put.

Speculation is Balsillie dreamed of moving them north to Waterloo Region. That all fell through. Now, he's got the Preds.

Balsillie was a no-show at yesterday's presser announcing the sale of the Preds for $220 million. His absence was not a good sign for the true fans of NHL slash-and-dash in Nash, where attendance dipped below 14,000 per game this past season. According to outgoing owner Craig Leipold, the club lost $15 million in Tennessee last year. Surely, Balsillie will move the team north, perhaps as early as the season after next, Right?

How about Cambridge?

Think it can't happen?

Think about this.

In February, RIM purchased a large plot of land -- 26 acres, Kiefer said -- in Cambridge off Can-Amera Parkway, between Lingard and Townline roads.

Picked it up from a home builder.

Paid about $3.8 million.

Might be a simple plot on which to build grand new digs for bursting-at-the-seams RIM, now occupying 21 buildings in Waterloo.

Or the site could land in Balsillie's hands and become a perfect place to erect a big rink for a big-time team.

Close to the 401.

Close to the Breslau airport, where international flights are welcome.

Most importantly, it appears to sit about 82 km from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. You see, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a veto power over any plans to drop another NHL club within 80 km of their ice palace.

The Leafs seem out of the picture.

Cambridge looks to be in frame. Balsillie was not responding to Record requests for an interview.

So how do the locals feel?

Let's ask NHL forward Scott Walker, a 33-year-old ex-Predator who lives about a minute from the potential arena site. We're talking an NHL team in his hometown. We're talking an NHL team just beyond his backyard.

"Wow," said Walker, when informed Cambridge was a wild possibility.

"That'd be amazing. That would be unbelievable. That would be a shocker to everybody, wouldn't it?"

Not just a shocker.

It would be a wonderful jolt of big-time energy in the city of the Sutherland Cup champion Winter Hawks.

The NHL is a big jump from the Jr. B outfit Walker once played for.
But why not dream big?

So what if it's all just speculation, as Kiefer and Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig admit. It's a good day to dream.

"It could be the Cambridge Predators -- sounds great," Craig said. "We certainly have land down here in Cambridge for such an enterprise. Then again, it's up to Mr. Balsillie and his group."

If attendance continues to sag below 14,000, the Preds could become a free-agent team as early as next spring.

Walker could be one on July 1.

He made $1.5-million with the Carolina Hurricanes this past season and is talking contract with the Canes right now. But, come Canada Day, he could sign with any team he wants too.

Walker, who was the poster boy for the Preds franchise during his seven seasons in Nashville, wouldn't mind becoming a Predator again. After all, he was on the first Predators team after Nashville claimed him in the 1998 expansion draft. When Walker was traded to Carolina last summer, he was Nashville's franchise leader in goals with 96, points with 247 and penalty minutes with 465.

"We were talking about Nashville and that was before Jim got the team," Walker said. "It'll be interesting to see what they're plans are, if they're going to stay or move or what. It definitely piques my interest a lot more."

But what about Nashville as a hockey town? Why, after a decade of Predators hockey, hasn't the capital city of country music reserved a place in its hokey heart for hockey, alongside Minnie Pearl and the Grand Ole Opry?

"Our first year, it was new and a lot of people and the music industry caught onto it," Walker recalled.

"It was kind of the place to be the first few years. It was the hip place to be. It seemed to die out after that. You still always had your diehard fans."

Walkers figures the fan base wasn't the true problem in Nashville.

He blames the business side.

"I think it was the corporate sponsors that really kind of hurt -- they didn't get them," Walker said.

"The football team did."

Hockey is no match for the Tennessee Titans of the mighty NFL.

"Right at the beginning, they played in a little stadium," Walker said of the Titans. "Now they have a brand new big one right down the street from ours. It's just a different animal. It's a southern state. They love the hockey but football is kind of what they grew up with. It was a tough thing to try and battle."

Should Balsillie move the Predators north -- perhaps to Cambridge or somewhere else in Waterloo Region where a plot of land stands in need of an arena -- hockey's battle to hold Nashville high ground will be lost.

But Waterloo Region may win big.

"I think it's great for the region if it comes somewhere in the region," Craig said.
Even if Walker doesn't end up playing NHL hockey in his hometown, he would enjoy taking his family -- wife Julie and kids Cooper, 5, and Anna, 3 -- to see a big-time game in the area.
He's never met Balsillie.

But the dream of bringing an NHL team to the Region can work in reality.

Walker is convinced of that.

"It'd be great for the community," Walker said. "I really do think that Waterloo, Cambridge and Kitchener are booming enough and Toronto is growing outside enough that it'd be exciting. I definitely think they could do it. I don't know all the legal aspects of it but I definitely think you could support a team here. Plus, you've got all the people coming from smaller towns outside -- Woodstock, Stratford and London."

Now, it's up to Balsillie.

The Preds are his.

Maybe, they'll soon be ours.

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