Amidst the dry desert of NHL news induced by the ongoing lockout, a refreshing rainstorm has a 100 percent chance of hitting the headlines this weekend with Hockey Hall of Fame festivities in Toronto.
Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, the city that houses the sport’s definitive museum is coming up in discussions yet again as a possible destination for an expansion or relocated NHL franchise. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, the latest to produce a fresh piece on the proposed arena in nearby Markham, has already declared this development inevitable.
This author will be among the first to admit that giving the Toronto Maple Leafs company in their market does not cease to sound like a strange proposition. It even feels morally wrong, for it would be better to share the wealth of NHL franchises with as many cities and markets as possible.
Nonetheless, like it or not, it could happen and it could actually work. There is living proof in one existing case of two NHL rivals who answer to the same dateline and another in a major market boasting an Original Six franchise and an impressively tenured, yet always unaffiliated minor league club.
For starters, Toronto is in the company of both Chicago and New York among the top five most populous and busiest cities in North America. Los Angeles is up there, too, and is a borderline two-team NHL market with the Anaheim Ducks living about three-quarters of an hour away from the Kings.
More to the point, the Leafs’ Stanley Cup championship drought of 45 years going on 46 is surpassed in history only by the Blackhawks’ 49-year lull (1961-2010) and the Rangers’ 54-season hex (1940-1994).
For the latter two franchises, their droughts were either 32 or 33 years old when a new professional team was introduced to the locals. In both cases, several estranged fans were clearly won over by a new set of crest and colors and the new fanbases were secured by the time the newer teams started winning titles.
The New York Islanders came to the suburb of Uniondale in 1972, won their first ever playoff series against the Rangers in a best-of-three in 1975, then garnered their first Cup in 1980. It would be their first of four straight titles—which at the time eclipsed the Rangers’ collection of three banners—and five straight appearances in the championship round.
The Rangers were still relevant by all means. They had been to the finals the spring before the Islanders conducted their inaugural game and again in 1979, the year before the Cup went to Long Island.
Even so, the comparative success of what was ostensibly the little brother secured New York as a two-team hockey town.
Imagine, then, what kind of reception a second Toronto team might receive if it wins early enough while the Original Six representative of Canada’s largest city does not go from perennial playoff no-shows to certifiable contenders in the near future?
The Isles have never exactly dethroned the Rangers as the most recognizable hockey franchise in the metropolis, but the civic rivalry is set in stone. So much so that one of the top stories to emerge amidst this lockout is the Islanders successfully staving off the threat of relocation and finding a new home deeper within New York City limits.
Since 1994, when they were 33 years removed from their last title before 2010, the Blackhawks have had a local rivalry confined strictly to the turnstiles. But owing in part to the NHL chapter’s protracted string of irrelevance, the Chicago Wolves have established a loyal following in their first seven years as an IHL franchise and now the last 11-plus years in the AHL.
It did not hurt their cause to claim the IHL’s Turner Cup in 1998 and again in 2000 before losing the title in 2001, then winning the Calder Cup in their inaugural AHL campaign in 2002. The Wolves put in another finals appearance in 2005 and won another title in 2008.
That chalks up to four championships and six trips to the final round over an 11-year span and in a total time frame of 14 years of existence.
Today, in accordance with common logic, Chicago’s NHL team is consistently drawing much bigger audiences than Chicago’s AHL team. Nonetheless, the latter is there to stay in a rare instance of an unaffiliated minor pro team surviving in a market shared with a major league franchise.
All of this can lend substantial encouragement to those pushing for a new arena and team on the outskirts of Toronto.
There may be a catch in that the team in question must win early and often when and if it comes into existence. With that said, the current circumstances and resultant possibility of success are too overwhelming to ignore.