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Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos defends 'Sunbelt' hockey

RALEIGH, N.C. – They want a team in Winnipeg. They want a team in Hamilton. They want a team in Quebec City, too.

But wanting another NHL team in Canada is not enough, according to Peter Karmanos, who bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994, turned them into the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997 and now has the hockey world centered on Raleigh, N.C., for Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“It’s mainly the Canadian media that’s always giving us a bad time … especially (saying things about the) Sunbelt,” Karmanos said Saturday after a press conference for USA Hockey’s developmental program.

“People need to remember there was a team in Quebec, it moved because they were going broke. There was a team in Winnipeg, it moved because they were going broke. The team in Ottawa went bankrupt. So they don’t have any … we don’t have any edge on them as far as troubled franchises.

“Now, I’d like very much to see a team in Quebec. I’d like to see a team back in Winnipeg. I’d like to see a couple more teams in the U.S. But in the meantime, just because they want a team, they need to remember they already had one and they lost it.”

The NHL’s struggles in the Sunbelt are well-documented – with ownership and attendance issues in markets from Phoenix to Dallas to Atlanta to Florida.

Karmanos has his own issues. He was an outspoken supporter of the salary cap before the NHL lockout of 2004-05, and even though the league now has a cap, his Hurricanes are not spending up to it and have been losing money.

They have a payroll of $49.8 million, 23rd in the NHL according to capgeek.com. They are valued at $162 million, 24th in the league according to Forbes magazine. They are drawing an average of 15,584 fans this season, 21st in the league according to espn.com. Karmanos has been looking for someone to buy half the team since partner Thomas Thewes died in 2008.

USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean praised Karmanos, a longtime supporter of youth and junior hockey, by saying: “I know no one who has willingly lost as much money as Pete Karmanos on youth hockey and amateur hockey and professional hockey, from Windsor (Ontario) to Plymouth (Michigan) to Hartford, Conn., to here, because he loves the game.”

Still, the Hurricanes went to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and won the Cup in ’06, and they have built a foundation in North Carolina.

The NHL’s fan festival has jammed the convention center in downtown Raleigh the past two days. Some Caniacs – as the Hurricanes’ ardent followers are known – were tailgating outside RBC Center before the SuperSkills competition Saturday. The Hurricanes have a hot rookie in Jeff Skinner(notes) and rank ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point out of the final playoff spot.

“I think this is really neat,” Karmanos said. “You know, I got roundly criticized for bringing the team here, which was amusing, I think.

“At that time, I thought it was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Most of the people coming here were from the North. I knew that we didn’t have a baseball team or a basketball team or a football team to compete with. It’s really nice to have all that proved out and have a great hockey market with a great young team. Our building always has a lot of energy in it. It’s a fun place to watch hockey. And I really am getting quite a kick out of it.”

Asked if he felt vindicated, Karmanos said: “I feel vindicated, if you can be vindicated. But I put far more money into cancer research than I put into hockey. But it’s a lot of fun.”

Could the NHL return to a Canadian market like Winnipeg or Quebec City now that the league has a salary cap?

“I think we could have one now because of the parity of the Canadian dollar with the U.S. dollar, but they need a building that they control the revenue streams in,” Karmanos said. “That’s the biggest thing that would hold them up. Winnipeg does have a building. Quebec City does not have a building.”

What do teams like Phoenix, Atlanta and Florida need to do?

“I think Phoenix is doing what they need to do,” Karmanos said, as the Coyotes push for another playoff appearance while trying to complete a sale to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer. “The best marketing you can have for a hockey team regardless of where you’re at is that it wins once in a while.

“The Florida franchise has suffered through several losing seasons. It’s been a long time since they’ve been in the playoffs. The Phoenix team now is concentrating on hockey rather than developing something out in Glendale (Arizona), and they’re doing a pretty good job and you’ll see the crowds come back there.”

Karmanos didn’t bite when asked about the criticism NHL commissioner Gary Bettman receives for trying to grow the game in the southern United States.

“They don’t …”

He laughed.

“I don’t want to get into those questions,” he said.

But he said the game had come a long way. He said he started his youth program in Detroit so American kids would have a chance to advance to the NHL, and he mentioned some of his program’s alumni, like former stars Pat Lafontaine and Al Iafrate. He spoke in a crowded community rink in Raleigh, after USA Hockey had outlined its strategy to get more kids playing hockey and doing more on the ice. He said he was looking forward to the day when the Hurricanes would draft a prospect who grew up in North Carolina.

“I think it’s really important that we spread hockey throughout the United States,” Karmanos said. “Basketball is a very popular sport because everybody has played it, or at least has tried to play it, and so you can go anywhere in the country and you’ll have basketball fans. I’d like to see the same thing with ice hockey.”

“I think ice hockey is a much more fun sport for kids to play and I think it’s much more fun to watch. It’s the best sport live. It doesn’t translate that great to TV yet, but if you’re a hockey fan, you like to watch it on TV. So I think spreading the program throughout the United States really helps build the sport, build a sound fan base all over the country.”