With the recent news broken by ESPN that the NHL is going to host a double-header on New Year's Day, 2010, I let out a sigh of relief. The news that the league was planning a second Winter Classic game in Calgary, to be played against a rival Canadian team, proves that the NHL front office is, in fact, aware that the country exists.
Inside Canada's hockey circles, there is an increasing sense of paranoia that the league no longer cares about the fans that care the most about it. With the recent setback facing Jim Balsillie's efforts to shanghai the Phoenix Coyotes, Canadian hockey fans needed a moral victory.
They needed evidence that the league hadn't forgotten about them in their tunnel vision to force the game upon Southern Americans.
The NHL's Winter Classic Game in Calgary is exactly the right move at this point in time. While Calgary's McMahon Stadium isn't as historic as Wrigley Field or as sexy as Fenway Park, it is important that the League make some concessions to keep their Canadian fans content.
Because of the NHL revenue sharing program, fans in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, and yes, even Edmonton, essentially pay the salaries of Coyotes, Panthers, Thrashers, and Predators. Without the success of the strongest franchises, the weakest would not be able to operate, let alone compete.
Ironically, it is the money of the Canadian fans that guarantees that Gary Bettman can continue to coddle his albatross franchises south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
With that in mind, hockey lovers in the Great White North are beside themselves at the perceived vehemence with which the League's decision-makers are resisting the efforts of Jim Balsillie to lure another team to the game's birthplace.
The League's seemingly quixotic desire to force the Coyotes upon the people of Glendale and Phoenix in the face of a guaranteed bonanza in Southern Ontario leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many north of the 49th Parallel.
Citizens of Winnipeg and Quebec City are wondering where this commitment to existing franchises was earlier in Bettman's reign of terror... er... tenure. They rightly point out that both cities make more viable hockey markets than any place where ice never naturally occurs.
The cat-and-mouse game between Balsillie and Bettman seems far from over, with court documents filed this past week requesting a looser time frame for the sale and relocation of the Coyotes. This battle is only going to get uglier as the summer progresses, but the NHL needs to be careful—they are fighting a shrewd opponent who has been labeled as The People’s Champion in the hearts and minds of Canadian fans.
Furthermore, the longtime fans are leery over what they see to be the “Americanization” of a game they see nothing wrong with.
But with this recent nod to the hockey fans of Canada in the form of bestowing Calgary an installation of the Winter Classic, the NHL proves that they are very capable of waging their own marketing campaign for our affectation.
It is understandable that the league doesn’t want to set a precedent of being pushed around by every billionaire who feels entitled by to have a franchise as his plaything. In their Balsillie battles, they just need to be sure not to alienate the Canadian hockey fan.