July 06, 2010
Journalist Dave Naylor dedicated months of his life analyzing, researching and reporting on the potential for the NHL to eventually add teams in hockey-starved Canadian cities.
All that work nearly went to waste when it appeared the League was close to doing just that.
Naylor, who covered the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators for about 11 years, was working on an investigative report for TSN and The Globe & Mail called "Why Not Canada?", a six-part series that sought to make "definite conclusions regarding the possibility of the addition of an NHL franchise in a Canadian market." Specifically: Winnipeg, Hamilton, the Greater Toronto Area and/or Quebec City.
Naylor and his team were about halfway done with the project when a bombshell dropped in the middle of May: The Phoenix Coyotes, who nearly moved to Hamilton in 2009, were rumored to be headed back to Winnipeg for the 2010-11 season.
Naylor was actually in Winnipeg when the news broke, wondering how to spin "Why Not Canada?" after a Canada-bound relocation.
"It was kind of bizarre. I said a little prayer every night: 'Not this year. Next year, please,'" said Naylor.
But the Coyotes remained in Glendale, the project was completed, and is debuting this week during TSN's SportsCentre in a six-part format.
The aim, Naylor said, was to bring hard data, analytics and guest academics to an argument that so often becomes one of nostalgia or semantics. "Everybody in Canada has an opinion on this. You can start a conversation in a bar, on the golf course ... there's no shortage of opinion," he said.
We spoke to Naylor on Monday about "Why Not Canada?", his findings, speaking with Gary Bettman for the projects, the cynical side of "Make It Seven" and whether or not he believes the NHL will expand or relocate north of the border again.
Q. Was there any market that you had some preconceptions about that maybe changed your mind after looking at it?
NAYLOR: In Quebec City and Winnipeg you have real people and political support. In Hamilton, you have a market that's been stalemated for 25 years. In Toronto, you just have a lot of buzz, but no one's standing on a desk screaming 'Look at me, look at me, I want to bring another team to Toronto!'
I think we were able to quantify what the interest in Toronto is. I don't know if the numbers surprised me, but it erases much doubt about whether there's a market here for a second NHL team or not.
What surprised me in Winnipeg and Quebec City, in particularly in Quebec City, is that I had no idea how far along the drive to get the NHL back was. In terms of the support at the political levels and the business community to get the arena built there in Quebec City.
It seems like, in some ways, we've gone from the "Make It Seven" rallying cry to several markets all believing they deserve an NHL franchise. Did you find it to be that fractured?
One of the market research companies we worked with actually found pretty broad support in Southern Ontario for a team in Winnipeg.
I still think, to this point, there's still a national cause in this country. The glow of the Olympic gold medal ... there's still this nationalist hockey thing hanging in the air.
You interviewed Gary
Bettman for the series. Did you have your Frost/Nixon moment?
(Laughs) I had spoken to him before, but not every often. I've thought a lot about how to interview Gary Bettman, and I decided we wanted to get answers from him. I wasn't there to prove how tough I was or that I could point to all the mistakes he made. If you go at him that way, we've seen what we get.
He's no fool. He never says anything he doesn't want to say. But I was happy with it, because I think we learned a little more about where his sentiments lie on this topic.
The irony here is that he's seen so much as the villain, when it comes to Quebec City and Winnipeg. And he makes the point that there were no owners in those cities who wanted to own teams. There was no option. That's a very fair characterization of that situation, and it's the No. 1 thing that's changed in Canada since then.
Now, he's talking quite favorably about both these places. For those fans that have spent 15 years gnashing their teeth about Gary Bettman, it's kind of an interesting scenario.
Is there a chance for Bettman to rehabilitate his image in Canada?
I think Gary Bettman's image has blown hot and cold here for a very long time. It was cold at first, with people saying he doesn't know the game and can't skate. But it improved during the lockout because the lockout was positioned as saving Canadian franchises.
After the lockout, the Balsillie stuff killed that.
I think there is an opportunity. I don't think Gary is anti-Canadian. I think he's driven by business motives.
Is there some cynicism in approaching this story; like wondering if Canada needs more teams or if these markets can sustain them?
What's the passion driving the hockey fans? You look at the market research that's been done in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City, and they believe the price point in places like Edmonton and Calgary and Ottawa are comparable. But there's a difference between asking people what they're going to do and what they will do. That's the tricky part in this.
When there's the euphoria of a team coming back, yeah, they're going to pay a lot for tickets and buy those suites. But what happens if they become the Florida Panthers, and you've missed the playoffs nine straight years? Are you going to lose a percentage of your fan base in Winnipeg if they become cynical? That margin of error in those markets becomes smaller.
The other issue is the Canadian dollar. If we all knew where the currency was going, we'd all be currency traders. There are still variables that are impossible to predict. There's a bend in this country right now that anything associated with hockey, you can't miss on it. But I think caution is a fair word.
In the wrap-up piece, do you definitively say which city is most preferable?
We came up with two components: A market grade and a grade for overall viability.
The first one is the market: What's the market there? If a team dropped out the sky, in a building that was already there, how would it work? In other words: If you took the same, pristine NHL building in all four cities, and just dropped a team in and said ‘Here you go,' what's the market for NHL hockey?
But ownership is a huge factor in terms of success. Then you have to look at the facility, and where is it? Is it in the suburbs or downtown? And then you have to look at the barriers the team would face in the marketplace. In Southern Ontario, you have the potential legal battles that we already saw play out with Jim Balsillie.
There are those who say that if you had enough money, you could buy off the Toronto Maple Leafs' indemnity; well, you start to think about money to the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, and then an expansion fee to the NHL or a relocation fee. Then, if you're building a new arena in Southern Ontario or Toronto, it's not going to get public dollars because there's already one here.
Start to think about the numbers it would take before you even drop the puck.
Finally, what's the
big picture moment of enlightenment you received in doing this study?
I think Canadians became kind of cynical, that the NHL would never go back to Winnipeg or Quebec City. And I don't believe that anymore.
If you had asked me at the start of this series what the chances are, I probably would have handicapped it under 50 percent. And now I'd handicap it at much, much higher than 50 percent.