Can Hamilton steal one?

JOE WARMINGTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

HAMILTON -- They can just taste it.

And who knows, perhaps a GO Train Stanley Cup playoff series for the ages will be the result.

Imagine that rivalry! We already know the tension between the Argos and Ticats. Can you imagine the Toronto Maple Leafs coming into town to face the Hamilton Coyotes in front of a packed house at Copps Coliseum?

For a hockey fan, what a dream!

It's Jim Balsillie's dream. And it's Hamilton's, too. When you have a hockey fan with the bucks and brains of the Research In Motion co-CEO, it could very well be one that will come true.

The BlackBerry boss says his MakeItSeven.ca website has almost 100,000 people registered in support.

"We appreciate their overwhelming support and their desire to see a seventh National Hockey League team in Canada," Balsillie said in a statement. "At the end of the day, this is about the passion Canadians feel for the game of hockey and a chance to provide those Canadian fans with the opportunity to support a seventh NHL team. Right now, the fans are signalling their enthusiasm in big numbers."

ECONOMIC WOES

And The Hammer is bracing itself.

It has been a long few years of economic woe, so needless to say, this is the kind of news a place could use.

"There is a buzz here," Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger told reporters.

Everybody is wondering, will it happen?

Some tough business titans, and perhaps the courts, will decide, but there's no question people here are psyched -- nobody more so than Jas Dhillon of the Superstar sportswear shop in the Jackson Square Mall who sells lots of the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldog sweaters, but can't imagine how many Hamilton Coyotes sweaters he'd move.

He'd love to find out. And lots of fans would love to buy one from him.

"It would be so great to be able to go to a game here instead of having to always go to Toronto," said Blue Lawrence, 14.

Same goes for her 12-year-old brother, Brighton Liddell, who says, "I would love it for sure."

Their dad, Lorne Liddell, said he'd sure love to be able to take them.

"Every game would be a sellout," said Liddell, who's still skeptical it'll happen, but added that it "would be wonderful" if it did.

It's hard to find people who don't like the idea. Even Canada's most famous hockey dad, Walter Gretzky, can envision grabbing his pal Butch Steele and coming the short trip down the road from Brantford for some games -- just like they do for many of the Leafs games at the Air Canada Centre.

"It would be stunning," he said, adding that although he "heard" his legendary son, Wayne, has said he wouldn't be part of it, "I haven't talked to him about it so I don't know."

He said he stays out of the business side of hockey, but admits from a pure fan point of view "it sure would be nice" to have a new team in southern Ontario "because if people want to go to Toronto to a game, they just can't get tickets."

Ultimate insider Wayne is in a tough spot on this one, but I suspect as an Ontarian he could be talked into being part of it, if there was ever a way for Balsillie and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to amicably settle this feud for the good of hockey.

Wayne already knows what a good hockey town it is since Copps Coliseum played host to a famous game in 1987 when he fed a sweet pass to Mario Lemieux who scored to lift Canada past the then Soviet Union to win the Canada Cup.

That was some party! And now Hamilton is ready for more.

The mayor is right, there is excitement here.

But it's not euphoria. Hamilton has been down this road before.

"There is no question we have been used as an NHL bargaining chip," said CHML 900 radio talk show host Bill Kelly, a lifelong Hamilton resident and a former city councillor.

Could it be different this time? It does feel different.

"Maybe it will be three times a charm and not three strikes and your out," Kelly said.

It certainly appears Bettman fully intends to fight. It's going to be interesting to see who ultimately wins.

The thing with Hamilton is there is so much potential here. It has a classic Canadian downtown core with historic architecture, well-planned-out roadways and a fairly vibrant retail and business community that sure could use this boost.

ADD 45 GAMES

Kelly thinks it would thrive "if you could add 45 games a year" to the calendar.

There certainly would be a real neat vibe here on game night.

"It was once a fabulous downtown back in the day," Kelly said. "This would really help bring it back."

And the key for this team to work is the fact that it does have full GO Train service right downtown -- which means hockey fans can come by rail from Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington, Oshawa, Whitby, Vaughan or wherever and get to a game with less than an hour commuting time.

Bettman has repeatedly run down the age and lack of NHL readiness of Copps Coliseum, but as Eisenberger said yesterday, he and Balsillie's people met to begin the process of a "framework" to work out how the city-owned arena could be given a $100-million facelift and still be ready for next season.

"It was designed for the roof to be literally lifted off and corporate boxes could be put in," Kelly said. "It can be renovated fairly quickly."

Of course, the only thing in the way of all of this is the old boys' club blocking the new kid in town using bizarre legalese as if they were trying to keep someone more popular out of the Moose Lodge.

But there is one truth in this battle and that is the Phoenix Coyotes are on life-support in the desert and there is plenty of water in a proud Canadian steel town for the team to not only survive but to grow.

And Hamilton is hungry for a team and is champing at the bit to become part of it.


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