Toronto May Seek an NHL Expansion Team Within This Decade

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIINovember 24, 2011

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 22: Goalie Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Toronto Maple Leafs stops a shot by the Tampa Bay Lightning  November 22, 2011 at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

There it was in all its glory: a three-page article, plus a front-page picture in a local Toronto newspaper about a proposed new arena-mall complex to be built north of Metropolitan Toronto in the GTA region of Markham.

The centrepiece is to be a new $300 million arena seating 19,500 that could be open for business as early as 2014.

The new complex would have owners Graeme Roustan (chairman of Bauer Performance Sports) and land developer Rudy Bratty on some of Bratty's land in eastern Markham, near the Unionville Go Station, north of Highway 407.

When the proposed project was unveiled, the emphasis was on entertainment, not sports.  The idea is to compete with the Air Canada Centre for entertainment acts, not for a new NHL team.  It is believed that a new arena will profitable without a permanent sports tenant.

Just the same, it's obvious that the owners have the NHL in mind at least for the mid-to-long term.

For starters Roustan, like Quebecor, currently fronting a bid to bring the NHL back to Quebec, is a failed bidder for the Montreal Canadiens.  And as noted above, he is in the hockey business.

If approved, construction for the new arena would start next year in 2012.

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There has long been a sentiment to add another NHL team to southern Ontario.

The last attempt was Jim Balsillie's ill-fated battle to get the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton.

The sentiment arises from two sources.

First, there is a huge hockey market in southern Ontario that for now makes due with the Toronto Maple Leafs and for those so inclined, the Buffalo Sabres.

The market is so huge that it will certainly be able to support three, perhaps four NHL teams.  A Hamilton franchise has been speculated to be the third most valuable in the NHL.  It would be the same for a second Toronto team.

The other source is the perceived ineptness of the Toronto Maple Leafs ownership.

Currently the Leafs are tied with St. Louis and Los Angeles for the longest streak without winning the Stanley Cup, 44 years dating back to 1967.

The Leafs have failed to even make the finals, never mind winning the Cup.

And currently under Ontario Teachers Pension Fund ownership, they have failed to even make the playoffs.

Certainly allegiance to a new Toronto NHL team would be easy for those fans starved of victory or even a competitive team.

It is also perceived that the defection of long-standing fans would light a fire under the Leafs owners to finally develop a true championship team.

For now there is no mention of the NHL besides competing with the Air Canada Centre for entertainment acts, but it's obvious Roustan and Bratty want to be ready for any opening to the NHL.

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 15: Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Phoenix Coyotes at the Air Canada Centre on November 15, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Unlike the NFL, there is no thought of wresting away an established team, so their aim must be construed as trying for an NHL expansion team.

With Quebec, Hartford and other American cities said to be after Phoenix and other money-losing markets like Columbus, the Islanders and New Jersey, and the completed transfer of Atlanta to Winnipeg, the list of money-losers is getting smaller.

And it makes sense for the NHL to expand to a symmetrical NFL-type structure of 32 teams in two conferences with eight divisions of four teams. 

The biggest obstacle may be the realignment issue that the NHL is currently facing.

If such a Toronto facility is built, it would almost be the end of any attempt to put a team into Hamilton. 

The NHL would look first at any larger, more modern arena in the bigger Greater Toronto market.

Just to know of the new arena's existence is bound to turn some of the NHL's heads.  Not only would such a facility end Hamilton's hopes, it would be tempting to put Quebec, Hartford and other would-be NHL cities on hold and expand or move a troubled Eastern Conference team to Toronto.

There has also been another group in Vaughan (Markham's sister GTA city, north of Toronto) that wants to get an NHL team but has not laid out any arena details like Roustan and Bratty.

Many NHL hockey fans and readers of B/R have doubted that there are any bidders who would want the Phoenix Coyotes, other NHL money losers or an expansion team.

But with new ownership in Dallas, and bidders from Quebec, Hartford, Hamilton, Seattle, Ice Edge, two groups in Toronto, plus anyone else who will step forward if the Coyotes are allowed to leave Phoenix, there's plenty of would-be NHL owners around.

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