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NHL Relocation: 7 Scares That Almost Happened

Lucien FloresContributor IOctober 30, 2012

NHL Relocation: 7 Scares That Almost Happened

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    With the New York Islanders recently announcing their move 20 miles from Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum across the island to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the team quelled years worth of speculation that they would be leaving Long Island. Once the Islanders move for the 2015-2016 season, they will be staying for 25 years in New York City’s highest populated borough?

    Even with the Islanders’ situation gaining clarity, relocation rumors will still surround teams such as the Phoenix Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers as fans dream of teams in Quebec City, Seattle, Kansas City, and elsewhere. 

    Relocation rumors are a constant in the NHL, however, most rumors stem from wishful thinking. When a team does actually change locations, it is among the biggest stories in sports, but it is often forgotten when franchises came incredibly close to relocating. In the NHL, many teams have come close to moving and, for one reason or another, stayed put.

    We'll look at those near misses, close calls, and fervent relocation rumors in times when NHL teams almost called another city home. Times when the Edmonton Maple Leafs, Houston Oilers, Nashville Devils, Hamilton Predators, and others seemed bound to take the ice. 

1981: Edmonton Maple Leafs & the Toronto Oilers?

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    The first entry on this list is the most outlandish. In the early 1980s, The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs not only came close to relocating, but there were talks between the teams’ owners to trade cities. The Oilers would call Toronto home and the Maple Leafs would go to Edmonton.

    This multi-franchise relocation trade was revealed to the public in former Edmonton Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington’s 2009 book, I’d Trade Him Again.

    According to Pocklington, in 1981, the infamous Toronto Maple Leafs owner—Harold Ballard—was sitting in financial trouble and needed a quick $50 million. In desperation, he called Pocklington for help. Pocklington recounted the near-deal in an interview with The Canadian Press (through TSN), saying, 

    "Harold phoned me and said, 'Would you consider moving to Toronto with your team and I'll move to Edmonton with mine, and I'll need $50 million.'

    "So I thought about it and said, 'Yes Harold, I'll go for that.'"

    The article continues to say that, 

    "The scheme called for the entire team to move to Toronto to play in Maple Leaf Gardens while the Leafs, in turn, would have found a home in Edmonton's new arena, which at that time was called the Coliseum."

    Pocklington asserts that this was one of many of Ballard’s schemes to earn the money and, "Within a week or two he called back and said I solved my $50-million problem and we'll continue the way we were."

    CBC writes that the money likely came from Molson Brewery who became a partner in the Maple Leafs at the same time. 

    At this time in NHL history, the Oilers were fresh faces in the league, having emerged from the WHA-NHL merger to play their first season in 1979-1980. Ballard was offering to part with a huge hockey market. The Hockey News uses Pocklington’s book to show how the trade would have helped Ballard:

    "The book points out that the Oilers were league leaders in attendance and were playing in a new building with more seats than Maple Leaf Gardens. As well, those were the heady days of Alberta's first big oil boom and there were plenty of people with cash in their pockets to expand ticket sales.

    The Leafs, on the other hand, didn't look so good. The book says the roster was being gutted by general manager Punch Imlach, and the team was losing ground in the standings after he traded away fan favourites Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams. The Leafs only won 28 games in the 1980-81 season and finished last in their division.

    And Maple Leaf Gardens, which was 50 years old at the time, was crumbling."

    Even so, Pocklington asserts that he would have done the deal if Ballard had not pulled out. As written in The Edmonton Journal, one telling quote in I’d Trade Him Again reads, “I was actually pretty excited about it. ...I did the numbers. I would have made a fortune in Toronto.” 

    Of course, the deal did not happen and both teams have stayed in their respective cities. The Oilers would go on to win their first of five Stanley Cups in seven years in 1984.

    With a roster that included Wayne Gretzkey, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, and other stars, it would not be hard to imagine that the Oilers would have duplicated their success had they moved to Toronto. Toronto remains a lucrative hockey market, however, the city has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. 

1983: Saskatoon Blues?

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    The St. Louis Blues were one of the ‘Expansion Six’ added to the NHL for the 1967 season and are the oldest NHL team that has yet to win a Stanley Cup. In 1983, however, their residency in St. Louis was almost cut short when the team came close to moving to the tiny Canadian city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 

    In January 1983, the Saskatoon based Batoni-Hunter Enterprises (led by president, and founder of the WHA Edmonton Oilers, Bill Hunter) put in an offer to purchase the St. Louis Blues away from Ralston Purina Company. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hunter promised to start construction on an 18,000 capacity arena that would open in time to host the Blues in Saskatoon for the 1983-1984 season 

    The deal was finalized.

    The Blues move to Saskatoon seemed inevitable. Only approval from the NHL was needed before Bernie Federko, Joe Mullen, Doug Gilmour, and the rest of the team could pack their bags and fly north.

    However, as reported in the New York Times, on May 18 the NHL Board of Governors rejected the sale of the Blues to Hunter’s group by a 15-3 vote. The league was unwilling to leave the St. Louis market and did not see the small Canadian city as a viable option. 

    Ralston Purina was livid with the NHL’s actions and a nasty legal battle between the dog food company and the NHL ensued as the Blues forfeited the 1983 NHL draft and Ralston Purina threatened to sell off players and assets to other teams.

    The NHL took over operations on an interim basis, however, if they could not find an owner, the NHL was ready to dissolve the franchise. Ten days before the NHL’s deadline, Harry Ornest purchased the franchise on July 27, 1983 (the only offer made), keeping the team in St. Louis. 

1995: Nashville Devils?

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    In 1995, during their march to the Stanley Cup, The New Jersey Devils were embroiled in a relocation scare. Having already existed as the Kansas City Scouts and Colorado Rockies, the Devils were close to calling a fourth location home.

    Their playoff run coincided with the height of a lease dispute with the Brendan Byrne arena in the Meadowlands Sports Complex (where the team eventually played until 2007).

    As Sports Illustrated wrote in 1995, Nashville offered the Devils a $20 million relocation bonus and a “sweetheart lease” if they were to move. The story dominated the hockey press as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, New York Daily News, and more wrote about it. Even after winning the Cup, there was talk in the Los Angeles Times that the team would move.

    Owner John McMullen did not like the newly appointed managers of the Meadowlands and was quoted in the Los Angeles Times, saying, "I suddenly walked into a very confrontational and difficult management at the Sports Authority. At that point, I should have said, 'Look, let's go back to Denver.”

    McMullen, the man who brought the Devils to Jersey, would have been the man who took them away. As Sports Illustrated wrote, the Devils would have become the first team to win a championship in one location and then start the next season in another.

    Even the players didn’t know where they would start the next season. Future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur joked to The New York Times, "It's out of our reach…We don't know what's going on. It's warmer in Nashville but that's not necessarily better." 

    As The New York Times reports, It wasn’t until July 14 that the Devils agreed to play at the Meadowlands Arena for 12 years if the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority would renegotiate a lease. 

    Ultimately McMullen—a New Jersey native—kept the team in his hometown state and admitted that, while money would have been better in Nashville, he made the decision to stay with his heart.

    "If you did this all with your head, you wouldn't stay,” McMullen said to the New York Times.

    The Devils played in the Meadowlands until 2007, winning three Stanley Cups in the arena, before moving to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. 

1998: Houston Oilers?

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    Peter Pocklington and the Oilers make the list for the second time when, in 1998, Pocklington came close to selling the team to a buyer that would have brought them to Houston.

    After the Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995 and the Jets to Phoenix in 1996, this relocation would have been a serious blow to Canadian hockey. Furthermore, the Whalers leaving for Carolina in 1997 would have meant the Oilers would have been the fourth team in four years to relocate.

    Leslie Alexander, owner of the NBA Houston Rockets, bought the Oilers from Pocklington in 1998. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, one year earlier, Alexander and Pocklington reached an agreement in which Alexander would keep the team in Edmonton for three years and move it to Houston in 2001 if the team remained unprofitable.

    Eventually these talks broke off because, at that point, Pocklington did not have permission to sell the team to an owner that would relocate them.   

    In 1998, however, Alexander no longer had to wait to move the franchise. While an arena had to be built in Houston, if the city were not ready for the Oilers, the Houston Chronicle wrote that the Oilers would play in an interim city such as Nashville until Houston was ready for NHL hockey.

    “If it has to move, I want to be able to move it to Houston," said Alexander.

    Alexander did not have control of the franchise just yet. As the Houston Chronicle writes,

    “Under an agreement with Alberta Treasury Branches, the bank that assumed control of the Oilers from former owner Peter Pocklington, Edmonton business interests have 30 days to submit a $70 million bid that would keep the Oilers in Canada.”

    This agreement gave local groups six weeks to make an offer before Pocklington could officially sell the team to Alexander. 

    As chronicled in Edmonton Oilers: Against All Odds, hours before the deadline to keep the team in Edmonton, a local group of 13 people—the Edmonton Investors Group—accrued the deposit needed to purchase the team (that is, half of the $70 million). While this was good enough to keep the team in Edmonton, the group grew and gained more members as it kept control of the franchise until 2008. 

2006: Hamilton, Kitchner-Waterloo or Kansas City Penguins?

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    In the mid-2000s, with Sidney Crosby taking the NHL by storm and Evgeni Malkin on the horizon, the Pittsburgh Penguins were struggling financially and looking to leave their ancient Melon Arena. At the same time, Blackberry boss Jim Balsillie made his first attempt to bring NHL hockey to Southern Ontario, agreeing to buy the Penguins for $175 million in 2006.

    According to the Toronto Sun, Balsillie initially promised to keep the team in the steel city, agreeing to help finance a new arena to replace "The Igloo." If no arena deal could be reached, Balsillie was free to relocate the franchise to Hamilton or Kitchner-Waterloo as he desired.

    As reported in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the deal fell apart after Basillie was given a list of terms that included one to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh, making relocation unacceptable.

    At the same time as Balsillie was making his plans, CBC reported that Kansas City’s Sprint Center offered the Penguins a rent-free stay where the team would be equal managing partners in an effort to bring the NHL back to Kansas City for the first time since the Scouts left in 1976.

    Eventually The Penguins stayed in Pittsburgh as the Mario Lemieux group decided to keep ownership of the team, rather than selling it away. In 2007, the Consol Energy Center was announced, providing the Penguins a home for years to come.

    The Penguins recovered from financial ruin, won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and are considered one of the premiere teams in the league.

2007: Hamilton Predators?

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    While Nashville failed to court the Devils in 1995, they did get their own expansion team in 1998. In 2007, however, hockey in Nashville did not seem certain when owner Craig Leipold put the team up for sale. Jim Balsillie agreed to pay $220 million to purchase the franchise with an eye on bringing the team to Hamilton, Ontario. 

    Balsillie squandered his ownership opportunity by aggressively and prematurely attempting to move the team to Hamilton. CBC writes,

    “A week after the announced sale, Balsillie reactivated a deal that gave him exclusive rights to negotiate a lease option for housing an NHL team at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, news that caught Leipold by surprise.

    Thousands of seasons tickets were sold after Hamilton's city council approved the agreement, which would have allowed the Copps Coliseum to be the home of the Predators.”

    The season ticket campaign reeked of backdoor tactics meant to disrupt the stability of the Predators' organization. As reported in CBC, Gary Bettman called the talks of bringing the team to Hamilton “premature.”

    As the Nashville Business Journal writes, Leipold was so surprised with Balsillie’s tactics that he eventually terminated the agreement and sold the team to a group of ten investors who promised to keep the team in the music city.

    Since the deal, the Predators have seen on ice success and a commitment to winning, signing goalie Pekka Rinne to a seven-year deal and franchise defenseman Shea Weber to a $114 million, 13-year deal. 

2009: Hamilton Coyotes?

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    In 2009, Basille made his last effort to bring NHL hockey to Hamilton, agreeing to buy the Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5 million from owner Jerry Moyes after the Coyotes boss filed for bankruptcy. According to CBC, Basillie consented to buy the team under the condition that he could move the team to Hamilton or the surrounding area.

    In an interview with NHL.com, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly argued that Moyes did not have the permission to put the team in bankruptcy, saying, “we [the NHL] control the Coyotes, have controlled the Coyotes and that he had no authority to put the team in bankruptcy. In fact, there was no need to put the team in bankruptcy.” 

    As CBC reports, an Arizona bankruptcy judge agreed with Daly and rejected Balsillie’s bid.

    Frustrated with the inability to bring a team to Hamilton, Balsille entered a fight with the league. The Canadian millionaire claimed the NHL had an anti-Canadian bias. Balsillie even created the website “Make It Seven” to get popular support for another Canadian franchise.

    Ex-Nashville Predator owner Leipold commented on his dealings with Basillie. According to the Nashville Post, Leipold said of the whole ordeal,

    "To be blunt, I plan on voting against Jim as a potential owner, and it has nothing to do with the Phoenix Coyotes or Jim's desire to move an NHL franchise to Hamilton, Ontario. Rather, I simply don't trust Jim, and don't believe he would be a good partner in the NHL or owner of an NHL franchise."

    The Atlanta Thrashers recent relocation to Winnipeg combined with the strained relationship between the NHL and Balsille means that Hamilton will not likely see an NHL team in the near future.

    This means that Hamilton, a market in which Balsille calls in an interview with CBC, "A market with devoted hockey fans, a rich hockey history, a growing and diversified economy and a population of more than seven million people" will be left without NHL hockey. 

2009: Kansas City Islanders?

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    As early as 2009, there had been speculation that the Islanders would soon call Kansas City home. Remember, Kansas City tried to lure the Penguins in 2006 and it seemed logical to speculate that they would try hard to bring another team to Missouri.  

    As the New York Times chronicles, Charles Wang bought the Islanders in 2000 and in 2004 he proposed a refurbishment of the Coliseum that was rejected. In what the New York Times suggests was an act of “leverage” for a new arena, the Islanders played a preseason game in Kansas City’s brand new Sprint Center in 2009 as speculation grew rampant.

    According to the Kansas City Business Journal, in 2011, Long Island voters voted 57 percent against raising taxes to build a new arena.

    The Islanders' lease with Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum expires in 2015 and it looked like they would have no where to play in New York City when it was over. Wang was losing money and the team’s poor play on ice in a dilapidated arena drew poor attendance.

    Wang threatened to move the team if a new arena was not built. Even in February, Islanders Point Blank reported that Wang was looking elsewhere to play after the lease expired.  

    As we know, The Islanders rectified the situation and will call Brooklyn's Barclays Center home in 2015.  NBC suggests that, both the Penguins (in 2006) and the Islanders used Kansas City as leverage, leaving the city in the dark with regular season NHL hockey. With the NHL buzz leading towards Quebec and Seattle, it is getting harder and harder to imagine the NHL in Kansas City. 

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    Did you find any of these close calls positively shocking? Could you imagine a world in which the Toronto Oilers won Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup? Would NHL hockey flourish in Hamilton? Did we leave anything out? Let us know in the comments below!

    Lucien Flores also writes about music and film. Follow him on twitter or browse his online portfolio.

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