A rivalry denied

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 4:24 AM ET

There was no sign of irate Dofasco workers storming the doors of the Air Canada Centre last night for what would have been a game between their Hamilton Steelers and the Maple Leafs.

But the team is still the Phoenix Coyotes, and apart from the obvious advantage of zipping to games by GO Transit, the Leafs can live with the NHL's fanatical desire to keep the team in Arizona.

"It would be interesting," Leafs defenceman Ian White said of a Hamilton-Toronto NHL rivalry, which was killed in court. "I'm neither opposed to it or for it. It's just tough to see teams struggling to make ends meet and really hard on the (Coyotes') players, when half the media's questions are about the team (staying or going)."

Centre Wayne Primeau liked the idea of the Leafs getting the travel break that the three New York area teams enjoy in the same division, but doesn't believe a transplanted team or expansion franchise elsewhere in southern Ontario would pose an immediate threat to loyalists of Leafs Nation.

"I don't know if it would affect things, given the history of the Leafs," Primeau said. "We've been around for so long. Would they get the crowds they expect in Hamilton or wherever?"

Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was intrigued by the intense rivalry between the QEW teams, wondered if it could develop into another Chelsea-Arsenal feud.

A veteran Steeltown scribe said the significance of last night's meeting wasn't lost on fans there, but having been teased so often about the NHL since the early '90s, no one would get too excited.

"Until the next time a team says it wants to come," he added.

Toronto coach Ron Wilson thinks the Coyotes can make it work in the long run, now that Ice Edge Holdings is planning to buy the club from the league.

"They're doing their part on the ice, trying to win," Wilson noted of the Coyotes being nine points up on the Leafs before last night. "Everyone worries about Glendale, but down the road it'll be an incredible entertainment area. As long as they keep winning and translating that into playoff success, that's the bottom line for most teams in the U.S."

Daniel Winnik, the Missisauga-born centre of the Coyotes, insists the team has made some headway.

"We're putting together a pretty good product and that's sort of been in question the past six years," he said. "We've seen attendance go up the past couple of weeks. It was a dead zone in October for awhile because people were unsure what was going on and what kind of team we were.

"It's a completely different makeup this year, a more veteran team. The practice schedule is lighter because of all the games (in the NHL condensed schedule)."

But wouldn't Winnik prefer playing closer to home?

"My parents (Walter and Elaine) were against the move because they wanted somewhere warm to visit," Winnik said jokingly.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos