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Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Relocation not going to happen

By Scott Burnside

West Palm Beach, Fla. -- With all due respect to our friends north of the border, isn't it time Canadians stop waiting for the relocation fairy to drop by with a brand-new NHL franchise?

We understand why every whisper and burp out of the league offices might be big news in Winnipeg and, more lately, Quebec City. Is this it? Is this the time when the NHL comes back home to Winnipeg or Quebec City or finds a vacant parking lot somewhere in Southern Ontario?

But does anyone really think there is a snowball's chance in, well, Phoenix in mid-July that an NHL team is going to up and move anytime soon?

The answer is an emphatic "no." It is not going to happen. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tells us it's not going to happen, and history tells us he is right.

Although there was a strong contingent of Canadian reporters at the NHL Board of Governors' meetings in Florida, among them Francophone reporters eager to chase down the latest on a potential move of a team, any team, to Quebec City, the topic did not even come up at the meetings.

Bettman was asked whether he was concerned about the situation in Atlanta, where crowds continue to be thin even though the team is as competitive now as it has ever been. He was not concerned, he said.

"You know, too much is made about franchise issues at a particular point in time. Our goal is to keep all our franchises where they are. That's always been our goal and that's what we try to do," Bettman said at the close of the annual December gathering of the NHL's owners.

It's true the commissioner does have a tendency to see life-giving rain when others see ominous storm clouds when it comes to various issues around the NHL. This is never truer than when discussing issues of attendance and franchise health. But history bears out Bettman's assertions.

No NHL team has relocated in more than 14 years.

The last team to move was the Carolina Hurricanes, who relocated from Hartford prior to the 1996-97 season.

A year earlier, the Winnipeg Jets moved to the desert and became the Phoenix Coyotes, and a year before that, the Quebec Nordiques quietly folded their tent and became the Colorado Avalanche.

Have teams been in trouble in the intervening years since that period of transition early in Bettman's tenure? Of course. There have been bankruptcies north and south of the border, criminal owners and owners behaving criminally, and all manner of hiccups along the way.

At various points in time, the Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Phoenix Coyotes and New York Islanders all have been rumored to be on the move to places as diverse as Las Vegas, Kansas City and somewhere in Southern Ontario.

None have moved. None are likely to.

During this meeting of the Board of Governors, the executive committee was introduced to Matthew Hulsizer, who is set to take over as owner of the Coyotes.

Who knows how that will turn out, but it appears hockey will remain in the desert long into the future, much to the disappointment of fans in Winnipeg who were hoping the Coyotes would be relocated there.

With that ownership fire beaten down, the focus has shifted to the Atlanta Thrashers and Dallas Stars.

Tom Hicks is looking for someone to buy the Stars and the ownership group in Atlanta is looking for investors, if not someone to come in and buy the Thrashers outright.

Recent history suggests it is only a matter of time before someone turns up with enough money and enough interest in the game to try to make a go of it in those markets.

Don't believe us?

It wasn't long ago that the Coyotes looked all but dead, but Hulsizer appears to be the perfect owner, a wealthy devotee of the game prepared to take losses while things get turned around.

Jeff Vinik brought stability to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and already that franchise is showing signs of rehabilitating itself after a period of turmoil under former owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

The Buffalo Sabres are apparently in play, and there are rumors Terry Pegula, an ultra-wealthy hockey fan from Pennsylvania, will make an offer to buy the team from Tom Golisano. Golisano, who rescued the Sabres from bankruptcy, wouldn't comment on the issue Tuesday, but Pegula looks at first blush to be someone like Hulsizer and Vinik who would be a nice fit within the ownership group.

The St. Louis Blues ownership situation looked a bit dicey earlier in the year when a private equity firm that owns a significant portion of the club announced it would divest itself of its investment, sending the Blues into a scramble to find alternative investors. Since then, the firm has scaled back that plan, and owner Dave Checketts said Tuesday that he hopes to have additional investors in place early in the New Year.

"We're well along," Checketts said. "We have said that we thought probably early in the New Year we'll be done and we will hit that."

Big picture, he and team president John Davidson are optimistic about the attractiveness of NHL teams to quality investors.

"I feel good about Gary's leadership. I feel good about the way we're addressing our issues. I think the league is an attractive investment for a lot of people now," Checketts said.

"For Dave and his restructuring, he's certainly staying, but he's had a lot of very good people very interested in being a part of it," Davidson added.

Beyond that, Davidson, a longtime NHL netminder and national broadcaster, said it's important from a stability standpoint that the league continues its practice of working as hard as possible to keep teams from relocating.

"I give the commissioner a lot of credit for being patient with a lot of these situations.

"You can't be a transient group, you just can't, when you have issues, jump up, move somewhere else and hope it works," Davidson said.

"I admire the way they battle to stay in all these cities where they committed themselves to. There are a lot of people on the other end in those cities, not just ownership, a lot of people who commit to your franchise when it comes in there," he added.

Because the game is such a motherhood issue for Canadians, these ownership discussions always will be shot through with emotion, which often clouds the issue.

Does Atlanta deserve to have a team when Winnipeg does not?

If an arena gets built in Quebec City, doesn't it deserve to have a team ahead of a place like Atlanta or Florida or Phoenix?

It's an interesting debate, but it has little to do with how the league does its business.

It's not about who deserves to have an NHL team. It's about making it work where the NHL has put down its flag, and that means no amount of pining for a return of the NHL is going to see a team head north anytime soon.