Steeltown dream survives

MICHELE MANDEL, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

And so the dream of a Hockey Night in Hamilton lives on for another day.

This dogged quest for an NHL franchise -- thanks to a bid by BlackBerry gazillionaire Jim Balsillie to buy and move the Phoenix Coyotes to Steeltown -- is starting to look more and more like an endless day at the amusement park, with a roller-coaster of highs and lows for our cousins to the west.

They've been up and they've been down, with Gary Bettman and his NHL board of governors throwing everything they can to stymie the feisty businessman's determination to relocate the team just down the road from the territorial Maple Leafs. But Hamilton was back on a high yesterday with news that Arizona bankruptcy court Judge Redfield T. Baum has apparently changed his mind and will allow Balsillie to be part of the Sept. 10 auction for the bankrupt Coyotes -- despite the NHL's virulent opposition.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger was smiling, but he knows this is only another play in what is destined to be one very long game.

"The people in Hamilton say, 'Get the team!' as if I have control," the mayor said, laughing. "They're cautiously optimistic. We're closer to the dream than we've ever been. It's the talk of the town today and I'm sure the people around the water coolers are buzzing with the hope that we get it."

But at the end of the day, it's frustratingly out of their hands.

For Hamilton talk radio host Bill Kelly, that's the problem. His phone lines were alight yesterday with listeners wary of getting their NHL hopes up after they've been snubbed so many times over the years -- and they don't see much changing if the "greedy" Toronto Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment has anything to say about it.

"Let's face it, there's a great deal of risk," says the morning host on CHML. "We've been there before, we've been burned before. So they're saying, 'We hope it happens but I'll believe it when I see it.' "

For now, they're watching from the sidelines and Kelly says you couldn't write a more dramatic script -- a battle of personalities between the upstart audacious Research in Motion billionaire pitted against the power-hungry Frodo NHL commissioner, refereed by a folksy judge who isn't the pushover anyone assumed.

"It makes for great talk radio," Kelly said, chuckling. "But it would be crazy to say happy days are here. Put it this way, I'm not ready to paint the Coyotes logo at the centre of Copps Coliseum."

In the meantime, the bitter battle has seen their town slagged by critics who don't believe they deserve, or can maintain, an NHL franchise -- with Hamilton called everything from a lunch-bucket dump to the armpit of Ontario.

LOCAL ANGRY

That angers Adrian Duyzer, a local web developer and contributor to the Raise the Hammer website.

"I don't know a single person who works in a steel mill," he says of the old cliches being trotted out to slam his city.

And while he'd welcome an NHL team, the hockey fan doesn't believe that it's the magic bullet they need.

"Some people here, and definitely elsewhere, think we need a white knight to charge into this city to save us from this 'decaying dump,' " he says with derision. "We don't need a hockey team to transform us, the transformation is already underway."

The mayor, of course, agrees. He points to a thriving waterfront, a growing health-care sector, two universities and a diverse population. But one thing has stayed constant, he says, and that's Hamilton's gritty resolve.

"That's why we appreciate Mr. Balsillie's dogged determination," Eisenberger says. "It's a very Hamilton-like quality -- we never give up."

And so he remains confident that there will be an NHL Hockey Night in Hamilton -- maybe not this season, but hopefully by next.


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