Hamilton sick of being 'used'

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

Have ya' heard the one about the NHL considering putting a second team in the Toronto market?

Right. When pigs fly.

This is not to discredit that front page story in, as they say, another Toronto daily, which quotes NHL governors as saying they are discussing the idea. They probably are. So, the story has legs. Short legs.

Actually some of them were "discussing" it back when Harold Ballard said: "Over my dead body."

Nobody actually went ahead with the idea when that chance came either.

JUST TALK

There's one heck of giant leap between talking about it and actually seeing the puck drop on the idea. And, so far, it has been all talk. And talk. And talk.

There was the time there was supposed to be a team going to London. Or Kitchener, or Barrie. Remember when they were going to build a rink at Woodbine, or was that Downsview?

Heck, lets build two. Because if the appetite for NHL hockey was the deciding factor it would be possible to put another couple teams in southern Ontario and still sell out. Hazel McCallion would bet Mississauga on it.

Actually, Hamilton did bet on it once. Twice. Aw, who's counting anymore. They even built Copps Coliseum back in 1985 under some vague notion that the league was headed its way. Poor deluded souls.

The rink was good enough for a Canada Cup, the Raptors off an on, but never for the NHL. It's just over a year ago that Gary Bettman again slammed the door on this second team for Toronto notion.

That was when Waterloo billionaire Jim Balsillie offered to buy the Nashville Predators and turn them into the Hamilton Blackberries.

The Leafs and Sabres naturally got on that like a farmer with a raiding party in his pumpkin patch gets on a shotgun.

He had everything going for him: A lease on Copps, even though it'll take $50 million to retrofit the rink -- $12 million more than it cost to build the original facility. Public support? Big time. At $500 to $5,000 a pop, Ticketmaster sold more than 10,000 seat deposits in two days.

DOESN'T MATTER

But none of that matters.

Last time we checked the folks who run the gold mine that is Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. are not prone to acts of financial suicide.

There is no upside to them allowing another team into their market, or anywhere near it. A second team in southern Ontario might not hurt their gate but it would certainly, over time, erode the Maple Leafs brand. They have a monopoly. There is no incentive to give that up.

Meantime, Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger is becoming weary of the city being used as the NHL's favourite whipping boy every time the water-cooler discussions turns to franchise movement. The most recent story quotes an NHL governor as saying Hamilton is "a minor-league town" and not an option.

"We understand the NHL does what the NHL does. But I know there are teams in the NHL that are struggling. That poses an opportunity for anyone interested in purchasing one and moving to Hamilton," Eisenberger said yesterday.

"Mr. Basillie certainly saw that opportunity here. Our agreement with him has expired but we're open to anyone."

Eisenberger said he hasn't heard of any new move to get an NHL team.

"Look, sometimes we're innocent bystanders," he said, laughing.

Of course, innocent bystanders sometimes get hurt. And Hamilton has.

"We have a great facility that can be retooled into a spectacular NHL facility. There is pent-up demand. It would be an instant rivalry considering the geographic locations of Hamiltion and Toronto. It has been a great rivalry in football that would be enhanced.

"We're all ears, but we don't want to be used as pawns to get someone else a team. I'm always wary of Hamilton getting kicked around as the second cousin of hockey.

"I'm tired of Hamilton being used by people to get hockey elsewhere. We're not about to play that game anymore."

Now if only someone could get the NHL governors to stop playing that shell game too, maybe we wouldn't waste so much time standing around water coolers in this town.


Videos

Photos