Should Jim Balsillie Start Another League?
Now that Jim Balsillie has antagonized Gary Bettman and enough NHL Governors to never get a franchise (unless there is absolutely no one else) there are three other courses of action for him.
First, he can switch to another sport (the CFL would probably welcome him with open arms if he started a tenth franchise) or walk away from sports all together. But if he wants a major professional hockey franchise, perhaps the best thing to do is to skip the NHL and start his own league like the WHA in the 1970's.
For Canadian fans, this might not be the worst scenario. There is a good chance that Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa might not be in the NHL today if the WHA had not been created.
The NHL has been hostile to new Canadian teams since the very first expansion of 1967. In that year Vancouver got turned down as a new team and St. Louis got a franchise instead.
The reasons were the same as the hostility to Balsillie today; desire for American money and status, and unwillingness to share Canadian TV money. This has led to an alliance between NHL Canadian owners because of the latter, and a majority of American owners, plus the commissioner because of the former.
Let's go back in time to the 1970's. The WHA was founded in 1972, by a group of millionaires, many of them Canadian, who found the NHL a closed-shop, old-boys league.
Cities like Quebec, Winnipeg, and Edmonton which would never be considered by the NHL acquired (semi) big league status.
The first action that showed the WHA was a league to be reckoned with was the signing of Bobby Hull, then the NHL's second biggest star. This was followed by luring Gordie Howe out of retirement to play with his sons.
Unlike the NHL, new Canadian teams were welcomed and valued. At one time there was an all-Canadian division. Calgary, Ottawa, and a second Toronto team all got their initial big league beginnings in the WHA. The WHA knew that their bread and butter mainly came from Canada.
The league had several weaknesses. It was clearly second in status to the NHL though it did manage to lure more stars away from that league as well as develop some of their own.
Like the NHL, it never got a big American tv contract and only had limited television exposure.
And for the most part, its arenas were second class facilities. The WHA played wherever it could. Only Cleveland and Edmonton took the league seriously enough to build modern, NHL-size arenas.
There were several attempts to merge the leagues and end the destructive hockey war but NHL opposition headed by the usual coalition delayed union until 1980. In that year, only six WHA teams were left and four, three Canadian, and one American joined the NHL.
Sadly, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg refused to abandon their small city thinking and build modern NHL-size arenas to survive and all are now relocated. Only Edmonton remains from the WHA.
So Jim Balsillie could learn from past experience and start his own league. Below is a history of the early years of his new league, the North American Hockey League, should he try to form it.
Jim Balsillie and partners form the North American Hockey League, consisting of twelve teams. The league learns from the mistakes of the WHA and adopts the following clauses to help it survive:
1. There is a salary cap in place before the league even drafts a player.
2. It signs a national television deal with Canada's Global Network which is anxious to get into big league hockey. Unlike the NHL deals with the CBC and TSN, there is a clause stating that each Canadian franchise will get MORE money if new Canadian teams are added, thus increasing Global's Canadian exposure.
3. All franchises are required to play in or are committed to building a minimum size arena of 18,000+.
4. Most American franchises are located near the Canadian border in "natural" American markets.
The commissioner of the new league is the original rebel, Bobby Hull. "This is an exciting opportunity for me," he says. "It gives me great pleasure to oversee the expansion of hockey in North America, particularly in Canada. And to know that Winnipeg is getting a team again is especially gratifying."
The league consists of twelve teams in two conferences, the east and the west.
Hamilton Mountaineers Seattle Seafarers
London Beavers Portland Trappers
Baltimore Ice Stallions Winnipeg Flash
Hartford Harpooners Milwaukee Foresters
Quebec Argent Patiners Spokane Redwoods
Rochester Lake Sledders Houston Cool Cats
Jim Balsillie gives up his rights in Hamilton to start a London franchise because he has also become the CFL owner of the new London franchise.
"Now that I am in two sports, this gives me a chance to build a two-sport complex which I couldn't do if I remain in Hamilton."
Work is immediately begun on a 20,000 seat arena and a 40,000 seat stadium.
Hamilton's arena is refurbished so that it now seats 18,500 and has 200 private boxes. Tickets are already becoming as hard to get as Toronto's.
ROCHESTER LAKE SLEDDERS
"This the first chance we've had at being a full fledged big league team except for lacrosse," says Rochester's owner. "Nobody really knows how good this market is. There are over a million people here and we also have the Syracuse area with 700,000 right next door."
BALTIMORE ICE STALLIONS
"Baltimore showed support for the CFL when they were a member," says Balsillie, "So we thought we'd take a chance with hockey too. They've always been a great sports town and I'm surprised that they haven't had a hockey team before now."
QUEBEC ARGENT PATINERS (SILVER SKATERS)
"It's great to have a professional team again," says Quebec's new owner. "The NHL wasn't planning to come back any too soon so to get a chance to be in the pros again right away was something to grab for. We'll play in the old arena for now while our new 20,000 seat arena is being built. In my opinion, this is a sure success."
"We couldn't wait," says Hartford's mayor. "I talked to Gary Bettman about getting back the Whalers and building a new arena within five years, but he was very non-committal. So when the NAHL came along we jumped at the chance. We can't have the Whalers again but Harpooners is close enough. I can't wait for our new 19,500 seat arena to open in two years time."
One of the first people to get a franchise was Jerry Moyes, the old owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.
"I still love hockey," he says, "But I never had a chance in Phoenix. Now I'm going to be operating a team in a real hockey environment. It was Jim's way of thanking me for allowing him to try and buy the Coyotes to award me a franchise in such a good location."
Seattle fans are overjoyed. "This is a way of sticking it to the NBA," says one.
"We always been tied to hockey in Canada via the juniors," says Portland's owner, "So moving up to the pros is a logical step. We won't have any trouble attracting fans."
"We can't wait for the season to start," say members of the hockey lobby group, the Manitoba Myth Busters. "We've been praying for a team ever since the Jets left. And our new name is just as speedy as our old one. The only thing better is when we win a championship in our new 19,000 seat arena that will be ready in two years."
"I can't understand why Milwaukee never got an NHL franchise," says Jim Balsillie. "They are one of the natural hockey hotbeds in the United States. Bob Johnson came from the Wisconsin area." The new team is off to a good start with over 10,000 season tickets sold.
"The city is small," says Spokane's owner, "But we've always supported junior hockey so it's not a strange element here. Spokane won the Memorial Cup a couple of years ago. And we've got natural rivalries with Seattle and Portland. When our new 18,000 seat arena is built, we'll be a force to be reckoned with."
HOUSTON COOL CATS
"This is a bit of a gamble," admits Jim Balsillie. "But Houston did have a team before and it is the largest American city without hockey. So we're keeping our fingers crossed. At least now they are finally building a proper hockey arena."
In the NHL, Gary Bettman winces when Houston is awarded a franchise because he was planning to expand into that market. Buffalo and Toronto make last-ditch efforts to persuade the NHL to reconsider and admit Balsillie.
"We had always counted on getting territorial compensation," says Buffalo's owner. "Now they're moving not one but two teams into southern Ontario and we're getting nothing, and they've put a team in Rochester too. We're being squeezed!"
On the hockey front, Dan Heatley becomes the first major star to jump from the NHL, followed by Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester. The NAHL wins a fierce battle with the NHL and signs the top two junior players to London and Seattle.
Meanwhile other things are settled. Balsillie and Hull fly to London where they gain an audience with the Queen who agrees to add a touch of grandeur to the league by donating a trophy, the Queen's Trophy to be awarded to the league champion.
"We're not satisfied with the trophy of a mere governor general," says Balsillie. Says Hull, "This adds a touch of royalty and legitimacy to our league."
The Duke of York, who has strong ties to Canada also donates a trophy for the league's most valuable player. For his role in organizing the league, Basillie donates a tankard for the most valuable player in the playoffs.
The league has an encouraging first year with satisfactory attendance in most locations. All the Canadian franchises have strings of sellouts, as does Hartford, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Portland.
History repeats itself as Winnipeg becomes the first champion. The Duke of York is flown in from London to present the Queen's Trophy, the Balsillie Tankard and his own trophy on this historic occasion.
The NAHL announces expansion to Salt Lake City (the Trailblazers) and Oshawa (the Otters).
"Love those Canadian cities," says Balsillie. "They're certified winners. We've got teams in the western part of southern Ontario and now we want to get fans in the eastern part. Oshawa is a great location because we get fans from eastern Scarborough, Peterborough, and as far east as Kingston. Maybe one day we'll expand into Toronto itself."
Steve Stamkos and Patrick Kane are the most notable players to jump from the NHL. The Harpooners who set the pace in the eastern conference from the start become the new champions. The NAHL announces expansion to San Antonio (the Starshooters) and Indianapolis (Ice Racers).
"We felt Houston needed a regional rival," says Commissioner Hull, "And San Antonio was the best choice. They'll play in the Alamodome."
The conferences are subdivided into divisions consisting of Spokane, Seattle, Portland, and Winnipeg; Houston, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and Milwaukee; London, Hamilton, Oshawa, and Rochester; Quebec, Hartford, Baltimore, and Indianapolis.
The NAHL again lands the top junior draft choice but the biggest news is the signing of Evgeni Malkin by Balsillie's own London team.
"I loved playing with Sidney," says Malkin, "But I felt it was time to strike out on my own. Sometimes I felt I was getting overshadowed. Maybe Sid will follow me one day."
The move coincides with the opening of London's new arena along with those in Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Spokane. But it is Seattle which wins the Queen's Trophy.
"This is the happiest day in my life," says Jerry Moyes. "We've been a success since day one at the box office and now we're a success on the ice too."
There is dramatic news in the offseason as two more Canadian franchises are added, this time in Montreal and Victoria.
"The news couldn't be better," says Quebec's owner. "Now we've got a provincial rival, the Neige-Orage (Snow Storm). I always felt Montreal could support two teams and soon they'll have their own arena built near the Olympic Stadium."
Jim Balsillie says, "I'm delighted. Now we have more Canadian teams than the NHL. The Wildcats in Victoria give us a chance to crack the British Columbia market and they'll be a great rival for Spokane, Portland, and Seattle."
To make things even better, Vincent Lecavalier leaves Tampa for Montreal.
Merger talks are begun, but not with the NHL but with the KHL. "We believe in the international nature of hockey," says Commissioner Hull. "I played with two of the finest Swedish players ever in Winnipeg, so I favor closer ties with Europe."
In the best final yet played, Quebec defeats Milwaukee in seven games, the last in overtime. Moncton, which had joined the CFL after building a proper stadium is encouraged by the result and successfully becomes the first Maritime city in the NAHL after agreeing to build a 19,000 seat arena to be the home of the Fiddleheads.
They are joined by San Francisco whose new team will be called the Squid. This causes consternation in Detroit. Oshawa's new 18,350 seat arena opens.
In the off-season, the merger is accomplished and inter-league play begins. The league is renamed the Inter Continental League.
Balsillie sighs with relief.
"The negotiations were hard but they're over with. I couldn't be happier." He dismisses the NHL as a "narrow, regional league".
The Europeans accept the Queen's Trophy and the other awards. In return, Vladislav Tretiak donates a trophy for the most outstanding goaltender.
The news of the merger has an electrifying effect on the NHL. Alexander Ovechkin immediately jumps to the ICL and is signed by Moscow. The Sedins leave Vancouver for Stockholm.
It is a great year for Balsillie. Not only is the merger accomplished, but his London Beavers defeat Prague for the championship on home ice.
The Queen who is in Canada on a royal tour, personally makes the championship presentation on the historic occasion. In return, Balsillie tells her, "Your Majesty, next year London will be awarded a franchise in our European Conference."
Meanwhile, San Diego (the Spawn) and Halifax (the Orcas) are given franchises in the North American Conference.
The Ontario provincial government grants the same status to London, Hamilton, and Oshawa by allowing their logos to appear on Ontario license plates. Sales of Hamilton and London's merchandise top Toronto's.
The entry of Halifax prompts Sidney Crosby to jump from Pittsburgh, along with some persuasion from his friend Malkin. Moscow defeats Hamilton to win the Queen's Trophy. In the off-season, Don Cherry and Ron MacLean leave the CBC for Global.
"The fact is," says Cherry, "That it is no longer Hockey Night In Canada. The ICL has more Canadian franchises than the NHL and they plan to add more."
Rumours have it that a Toronto team will finally be added along with a team in Red Deer to tap into the Alberta market. Fans in Saskatchewan and Windsor have hopes too. Montreal and Moncton's new arenas open.
History is made when London plays London.
"This is great," says Jim Balsillie. "This is the first time two cities with the same name have competed against each other. We already feel a strong rivalry. It's unusual to have a rival on another continent but we do. It would be great if we played them in the championship round one day."
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