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Wheeler | NHL success not guaranteed by moving north

Canadian nationalists may dream of bringing more teams north the border, but their hopes are unrealistic, argues Randal Wheeler.
The Winnipeg Jets' Andrew Ladd, centre, and his teammates. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Trolling the message boards of various sports websites, including CBC's, it's amazing to me how so many people in this country complain about NHL franchises in southern climes.

You know the old story: "Why the heck are there hockey teams in Florida, in Nashville in Phoenix, in Dallas? What's wrong with the NHL? Don't they know hockey is Canada’s game? Get rid of those southern U.S. teams and move 'em to Quebec or Hamilton or Saskatoon!" 

I couldn't believe that many people were that stupid!

Then I realized what it was: Canadian insecurity.

An American team has won the Stanley Cup for the last 20 years running. America has stolen part of our soul, our very identity, and damnit, we want it back!

Well, before you start putting a maple leaf on the back of every helmet in the NHL, prepare yourself for a letdown. 

Just because a team is in Canada does not necessarily guarantee its success. Years ago, the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques moved south because they were going broke.

Sure, people were showing up to the games but with the relatively small population base in those cities and the plunging loonie, the Jets and Nords couldn't compete financially. And by the way, it wasn’t just small Canadian markets that struggled; remember the Hartford Whalers?

So why all the clamour now?

Well, the loonie is strong again and one southern team, Phoenix, has been a financial basketcase for the last number of years. Another, Atlanta, folded up their tent and moved back to Winnipeg two years ago.

So perhaps Canadian nationalists began having dreams of a 30-team NHL with 15 teams north of the border.

I don't mean to burst your bubble, but very little has changed for the Winnipeg Jets since they last played in the NHL.

They still have a relatively small arena in a relatively small city. They don't have enough money to go out and sign big-name free agents and most pundits believe they are headed toward their third consecutive losing season.

Is there hope for the future? Have you seen the roster for their AHL farm team in St. John's? Any kids there just a hare's breath away from being an NHL star? 

As well, who can predict the financial future? The loonie is around 96 cents against the U.S. dollar.  If it were to slide just a few more cents, the Jets would be right back where they were when their first incarnation headed to Phoenix.

A lot of people won't like my opinion, but if I owned a flagging NHL franchise, I'd look to places like Houston, Seattle or even Las Vegas … cities with money and a large population base.

If an owner has deep pockets and can put a winner on the ice, people will support hockey, even in non-traditional markets.

About the Author

Randal Wheeler

Randal Wheeler works with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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