Hockey

Canada can support 9 NHL teams: Sens founder

As the city of Winnipeg officially returned to the NHL fold and became Canada's seventh team, former Ottawa Senators owner Bruce Firestone ruminated on a time when the league may even add two more Canadian hockey clubs.
Bruce Firestone, seen in 1989, is a real estate developer and the man who brought NHL hockey back to Ottawa in 1992. (Frank Gunn/Caandian Press)

As the city of Winnipeg officially returned to the NHL fold and became Canada's seventh team, former Ottawa Senators owner Bruce Firestone ruminated on a time when the league may even add two more Canadian hockey clubs.

On Tuesday, True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move the franchise to Winnipeg for the start of the 2011-12 season.

With at least three other U.S.-based teams mired in financial trouble, Firestone believes commissioner Gary Bettman could be targeting Quebec City and Hamilton as the newest members.

"I really do," Firestone, a real estate developer and the man who brought NHL hockey back to Ottawa in 1992, told CBC reporter Teddy Katz.

"I think Canada can certainly have nine NHL teams. I'd like to see the [Quebec] Nordiques return, I'd like to see a team in Hamilton and I think they would be viable."

Firestone stressed that Winnipeg, Quebec and Hamilton wouldn't make huge profits, but "may do a little better than break even. "

"Certainly if they have a long playoff run, they'll do better than that."

When Winnipeg and Quebec lost their franchises in the mid-1990s, the Canadian dollar, which was less than 70 cents to its U.S. counterpart, was the primary culprit.  

"It was just a perfect storm that blew away Winnipeg, Quebec and almost blew away Ottawa," said Firestone.

The tables have certainly turned since then.

The Canadian economy has weathered the financial crash of 2008, but the U.S. continues to struggle while piling up more than a trillion-dollar deficit.

Other teams in trouble

On the ice, the Phoenix Coyotes, who are still run by the NHL, were given a stay of execution for one more season, but ownership issues and a battle with the conservative watchdog group Goldwater Institute continue to put future plans in doubt.

The Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets are also teams reportedly in financial peril.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that it was economics that combined to draw both Quebec and Winnipeg out of the league years ago and those same forces have turned around [to bring hockey back]," said Firestone.

"The NHL is faced with the reality that they have to face other alternatives, and the next-best alternatives are the Canadian cities. I think this is just a reflection that Canada has done reasonably well through this recession and the United States has not."

If the NHL is to return to Quebec, the city will need a new arena built, something Firestone doesn't think will be a major obstacle.

"I'm quite optimistic there," he said. "I know some of the people who are acting on behalf of the would-be Nordiques' franchise and I would never underestimate their determination and cleverness of these people, and the depth of their capabilities. So I think yes, there will be one in Quebec."

Hamilton is a bit trickier. Aside from the fact that any prospective owner would need to financially compensate both the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL actually has eyes for an expansion team in the Southern Ontario area — a lucrative prospect that would net millions for the other owners.

"My personal opinion is that we should have a team in Hamilton. That's been my view for many years now going back almost 20 years."

But no matter how it's done, Firestone is firm in his belief that the NHL needs to make a real commitment to Canada should it allow more teams to cross the border.

"I think it's very important for the NHL, if they are going to re-establish franchises in Quebec and perhaps entertain one in Hamilton, that we see these as long-term investments," he said.

"It doesn't serve the league well and I think if there are going to be franchises in those cities, then the league has to have a determination that this is a long-term investment and that it will protect the integrity of those franchises for the next 25 years."

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