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Woe, Canada : Hockey, the National Game, Has Fled South and NHL Economics Indicate It Won't Return Soon


Will the last Canadian-based NHL team to move to the United States please turn out the lights?

Although their flight has halted--at least temporarily--after the Quebec Nordiques' departure for Denver and the Winnipeg Jets' move to Phoenix, the plight of NHL hockey in Canada has, in many ways, never appeared worse.

Thousands of seats go unsold for games in Ottawa's new Corel Centre, and the Calgary Flames play to about 85% capacity in the expensively renovated Saddledome. Vancouver fills about 90% of the seats at GM Place, and even the Montreal Canadiens don't sell out every game. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who play the Mighty Ducks tonight in Anaheim, do well at the box office, but they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967.

It's bad enough that Canada lost the World Cup of Hockey to the United States in September. Still, most Canadians accept it as the outcome of a compelling and fair competition. That native sons make up an all-time low of 60.8% of the NHL's players is also tolerable because they believe foreigners add skill and flair to Canada's uniquely gritty style.

But losing their teams because the American dollar is stronger and more plentiful strikes them as unjust, a difference that can't be settled on the ice.

"There is some feeling we've lost control of the game," said Christie Blatchford, a columnist for the Toronto Sun. "The World Cup loss is a matter of national pride, and couple it with the fact that Hamilton [a city located between Toronto and Buffalo] can't seem to get an NHL franchise when cities that, to us, appear to be bizarre for hockey or that appreciate it in a different way are getting franchises, and it combines for a sense of loss."

The Nordiques and Jets, situated in cities with small business communities and arenas that had no luxury boxes, couldn't keep pace with rising player salaries. The Nordiques were sold for $75 million and became the Colorado Avalanche before last season, and the Jets, bought for about $67 million by Richard Burke and Stephen Gluckstern, became the Phoenix Coyotes this summer.

"Everybody has a different version of what should have happened. The [new] arena should have been built sooner. There's probably half a dozen reasons," said Winnipeg lawyer Mark Chipman, who led a group called Save the Jets. Drawing on mom-and-pop businesses and kids' piggy banks, the group raised $60 million to help support the team. It wasn't enough.

"Even if we had gotten it done, we would have run out of time," Chipman said. "In three years' time, we might have been back asking the public [for money] again. . . . I don't think the NHL owners really care about where their markets are. They say they do. The whole lockout [in October, 1994] was to protect the small markets, they said. But the collective bargaining agreement has never been used to stop the escalation of salaries."

In Quebec, individual fans could afford to pay only so much for tickets, and there was little corporate support to pick up the financial slack.

"In the new world of the NHL, it wasn't a strong market, it's as simple as that," said Pierre Gauthier, who spent 12 years with Quebec as a scout and is now general manager of the Ottawa Senators. "You can't blame the government, you can't blame Marcel [Aubut, the former owner]. That's free enterprise. If you have any kind of business, those are the issues you have to deal with."

The Edmonton Oilers last winter nearly fled to Minnesota or Nashville. They stayed only after a local group, Friends of the Oilers, recruited local businesses in a massive ticket-selling effort and the NHL devised a program that gives Canadian teams up to $5 million U.S. annually if they reach specified season-ticket and advertising sales levels. The program, which will be reviewed after next season, is also providing subsidies to the Senators and Flames.

"It's tough for Canadian teams because they're in smaller markets with smaller revenue sources and have to deal with the 30% difference on the dollar," Gauthier said. "It's like fighting with an arm behind your back."

The subsidy isn't huge, but it allowed the Oilers to commit $6.1 million over two years to re-sign their two best young players, Doug Weight and Jason Arnott. With season-ticket sales up from 6,200 to 13,200 and national sponsors such as McDonald's about to pitch in dollars and clout, the Oilers have staged a tremendous turnaround.

But will it last?

"It's kind of like the chicken and the egg. You can't get good players until you get fan and business support, but you can't get support until you have good players and a good team," said Doug Piper, the Oilers' executive vice president of business operations. "A few years ago, we were not able to sign players who had grown into a higher economic market. We're finally ahead of the chicken-and-egg trap.

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