October 3, 2010

Homeward Bound?

Can small markets make a comeback?
Like so many, I have a soft spot for nostalgia. Now don't get me wrong, I love my 90s television and music, but I'm more of a softie for defunct NHL franchises. Nothing says true fan to me like putting on your throwback Nords jersey, while rocking out to Brass Bonanza and cutting a check to Goals for Kids. I remember these teams fondly, and I remember being sad seeing them go. I was sad because they were something I grew up with and was used to, but more so than anything else, I was sad for the fans who had to say good bye to their beloved teams.

What also hit me like a ton of pucks was the fact that these were three teams who were in small markets with outdated facilities and unfortunately had slipped away from their winning ways. Sound familiar? But thankfully, the Isles were able to get it together in the years that followed, and they were able to make themselves playoff contenders (for a time at least). Unfortunately, it was too little too late for the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers. None of these teams were able to secure the ownership or the funds for a new building.

And wouldn't you know it, the Nords move to Colorado, become the Avalanche, and win the damn cup. Can you only imagine if that had happened two or three years prior? There may never have been The Blue March that was held yesterday in Quebec City. Somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 Nordiques fans took to the Plains of Abraham to rally for the return of the Nordiques. It was a tremendous event, that saw the return of Nords legends, such as the Statsny brothers. It was also, in my opinion, a tremendous success.

Point blank, hockey never should have left Quebec. It probably shouldn't have left Winnipeg either. Canadians have too much pride and love for the game of hockey to have two of their teams be swept out from underneath them. Don't get me wrong, I'm not willing to give them my team, but there should still be teams in those cities. Now there have been rumors for years that these teams would eventually make their way home. Quite honestly, we've never been this close to seeing a return in either market. The new(ish) MTS Centre in Winnipeg could be a great suitor for the return of the Jets. Let's be real about something: it's great that hockey fans can watch the Manitoba Moose, but that arena was NOT built for AHL hockey. That was built to lure the NHL. Don't let anyone tell you any different.

This recent rally, plus the support of many of the politicians in the province, could be the open door opportunity to put a team back in Quebec. Their only issue, unlike Winnipeg, is the arena. The Colisee is completely out of date and far inferior as compared to most NHL venues. While the 1949 house is a great monument for old time hockey, it has to go. If the politicians and hockey fans play their cards right, it will be only a memory, while the new $400 million dollar palace is built to bring home the Colisee's former tenants. It was also announced that the province of Quebec would fund 50% of the project, while Quebec City would throw in an additional $50 million. But as per usual, the normal politics will come into play, and may stall the plans. But remember, politics works two ways, and those in favor of it have said that they also want the new arena in order to lure the Olympics back to Canada in 2022.

Now, most of you may be asking why in the hell I decided to write about this in an Islanders blog. Well, they were small markets that lost their teams. We're a small market that's in danger of potentially losing our team. But the most important piece of the puzzle, is that they are small markets that may be getting their teams back. In my honest opinion, I believe that a return to hockey in Winnipeg and Quebec is inevitable. I think that these are both cities that can sustain NHL franchises, despite what their history will tell you. I also think that the NHL would entertain the idea of adding teams to the country that loves them most.

Now I understand that Gary Bettman has said that he is committed to the teams in place, and that's great news for a team like the Islanders. We have an owner who is committed to keeping us here, and has spent a boat load of money trying to do so. Eventually however, you need to cut your losses and admit defeat. This must be clear in the case of Mr. Bettman. While I commend his dedication to the current markets and fan bases, there comes a time where you've got the make a smart business decision and decide that it is time to expand and grow a profit. That may be the case for such teams like the Phoenix Coyotes. They had a fantastic run last season and made it all the way to the playoffs, and still, they don't know what their ownership (if any_ situation is. The league is dropping millions into the team to keep it afloat until a resolution is met. As of right now, there isn't a clear cut owner who is fronting the money to keep the team in Phoenix. How much longer can this go on?

What does this mean for a team like the Islanders? It shows that with the right facilities, a team can exist in a small market, and the league is willing to put teams in a small market. I'll eat my crow; I've said for years that the NHL would never put a team in a small market again. After the Hartford, Winnipeg, Quebec, and currently Long Island situations, I thought the league was done with the smaller markets, and would only focus on cities like Las Vegas. I stand here today and say that I may have been wrong, which is a good thing. It shows that there may still be hope for us smaller market fan bases. Gary Bettman was always behind keeping the Islanders here, and he was always behind the Lighthouse Project, but it's refreshing to hear that we're not the only ones, should the right situation come around.

What can the people of Quebec learn from the Islanders current battle?

Quite honestly, I think there is something to be said about flexibility. The politicians, potential owners, and taxpayers need to all be flexible in this process. It's going to take a lot to please as many people as possible, because let's be real, you won't please everyone. There's always going to be one kill-joy in the crowd complaining about how their tax dollars went to fund a hockey team. The funny part is that while they entertains friends/family/clients at the Nords game or Lady GaGa concert, they'll forget about it and just have fun (and make themselves look like a rock star in the process). But the key is to be flexible. We saw how the inability to come to a reasonable conclusion can kill the chances of keeping a team in their home. That falls on both parties involved.

These people are going to NEED to listen to each other, and find some common ground to walk on. Those opposed are going to have to look at the big picture and see how this could be profitable for years to come and potentially land the Olympics. Those in favor need to be willing to scale back some, in order to appease everyone. In doing so, they can't attack each other in the media, then place a gag order in effect to call each other's bluffs. They're going to need to sit down, go into each meeting with an open mind, and find the most suitable conclusion so that everyone walks out a winner. That does not include scaling something back to the point of no return to put pressure on someone. In return, it means not standing pat thinking you've got them on their heels. Quebec, learn something from the Lighthouse Project. It was nearly a decade of nonsense. Blame whoever you want. My opinions are well documented at this point. At the end of the day, we all lost.

Here's some old news packages:


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