Fantasy hockey dreams

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

It is the nature of the hockey fan to fantasize. They like to think their team can win the Stanley Cup, their favourite players can win the major trophies, and so on.

That's fine. But at some point someone has to draw the line between fantasy and reality and at the moment, in one specific area, it seems that no one is willing to do that.

There is a pervasive theory out there that if the Pittsburgh Penguins don't get their new arena they might move to southern Ontario.

It's a nice fantasy. Here's the reality. It is not, as in definitely not, going to happen. And while we're at it, toss in Winnipeg and Quebec City. They are not going to get their National Hockey League teams back, either.

We'd all like to see it. As Canadians, we know that we're supporting the league right now.

We know that U.S. television ratings are in a major funk everywhere and that American attendance figures (speaking of fantasies), are wildly inflated yet still well down.

PACKED ARENAS

We see packed arenas in Canada and, despite the recent blip, strong television support. We know that hockey is our national game and we love it with a passion.

But none of these things matter to the NHL governors, the vast majority of whom are American. And when the decision is made about the relocation of the Penguins, or any other team, it is not Canadian hockey fans who will make the decision. It is the NHL's board of governors.

For one thing, they haven't forgotten the recent problems of the Canadian dollar. It's relatively strong right now, but still not worth an American greenback. And when you make a decision about the location of a hockey team, you try to look long term.

It's an arguable point, but in a resource-based economy which is steadily reducing its component of skilled workers and managers, the long-term outlook for the dollar is questionable.

SELL TICKETS

The governors, naturally enough, also consider the impact on their own team. If you own, for instance, the Los Angeles Kings or Colorado Avalanche, do you want to try to sell tickets based on the fact that Kitchener is coming to town?

Viewing audiences are market oriented. No matter how much NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tries to deny it, last year's Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes was a large-market disaster.

To put it in terms the governors understand, if you put teams in small markets, they make less money for the league.

It matters not that people in Kitchener, Winnipeg or Quebec might come to the games -- although that oft-made assertion is highly suspect. Quebec and Winnipeg had their chance and it didn't work. Both of those markets have roughly 700,000 people and to fill an 18,000-seat arena -- even if they had such a thing -- 41 times a year plus playoffs is no easy task in an urban area of that size.

In Kitchener, the premise presumably is that people will travel from the Toronto market.

But the governors couldn't care less what your team does at home. Their question is this: "What will it do in my building?"

The NHL keeps honest attendance stats and throughout the decades one fact has been unassailable. Except for occasional exceptions -- such as when Wayne Gretzky played for the Edmonton Oilers, for instance -- the Canadian teams always are the worst draws in American buildings.

In theory, Penguins owner Jim Balsillie could move his team despite league edicts, just as Al Davis did with the National Football League's Raiders.

But a lot of legal roadblocks have been established by pro leagues since Davis succeeded in that regard, and just recently, Davis had one favourable verdict overturned.

Yes, a team in Kitchener would be nice. Around here, we'd all like it. But it's not up to us. And the people it is up to never will let it happen.


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