Photo By: Nick de Guzman via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License.
Mention relocation to an NHL fan and no matter their age or nationality, their eyes glaze over and they immediately speak wistfully of Winnipeg and Quebec as if the end of the Canadian Epoch killed NHL hockey altogether. If only those idyllic hockey towns were gifted a new team, everything would be right in the NHL and the world at large. For fans that don't find nostalgia compelling, the allure of a shiny new arena even in a once-failed market like Kansas City is overwhelming. Sickly franchises like the Islanders or Coyotes would find respite in the American plains with executive suite revenues and large corporate sponsors.
But while nostalgia draws fans to the past and a bright shiny object disorder draws fans to the American Midwest, the elephant in the room remains Southern Ontario.
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Jim Balsillie's failed big to buy and relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton, ON brought to light just how underserved the Canadian hockey market really is, however, the best way to server the Canadian market isn't by going back to two previous failed markets. If the NHL were to do what's best for the sport, meaning the players, the owners, the fans and the league, the next targeted market should be an old friend - Toronto.
Metropolitan Toronto or the Greater Toronto Area, Southern Ontario essentially, is ideal location for a second hockey club. The metropolitan population of 5,555,912 ranks 10th out of 27 total NHL markets, and the Metropolitan GDP of $323,000,000 ranks 7th out of 27. Two of the six markets rankings ahead of Toronto in GDP, New York and Los Angeles, already support multiple teams. And while there are four other larger markets by economy size (Chicago, Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia), none of those markets have the demand pressures that exist in Toronto.
The city of Toronto has 51 outdoor rinks, more than the total number of ice rinks in Philadelphia and Dallas combined, and that's just outdoor rinks in Toronto proper, not Southern Ontario as a whole. The province is almost the sole provider of players to support the 20 team Ontario Hockey League and supports the Ontario Junior Hockey League and Southern Ontario Junior Hockey League and nearly 250 Ontario-born players played in the NHL last season. Ontario is the market center of the hockey universe.
The simplest measure of demand pressure in a market is ticket prices. The Toronto Maple Leafs have the highest average individual game ticket prices in the NHL at $114.10 (in 2009-2010), nearly $42 more than next highest individual game ticket in Montreal. That 58% percent gap has done nothing to thwart attendance, even though the Leafs haven't made the playoffs in five years. The demand is such that thousands of fans are denied the opportunity to ever live NHL hockey through scarcity of tickets or through cost. The largest existing market, not potential market, of fans on the continent has been shut out of the NHL experience.
The NHL could rectify this quite easily. Whereas Jim Balsillie gained the adoration of Canadian hockey fans everywhere with his strong-armed tactics against the NHL, his attempts to circumvent the most powerful men in hockey were met with the expected reaction - the league was reacting to an outsider lacking proper reverence. However the league must know, despite the strong objections of the Maple Leafs, how vital a second team in Southern Ontario would be to league health.
A second team in Southern Ontario, whether in Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton or Burlington, will be one of the most profitable teams in the league. And in a league where eleven of the thirty teams are receiving significant revenue sharing income, and a league-owned team operated at a $53,776,576 loss, finding a market capable of supporting a profitable team without a deep-pocketed owner is paramount. As with the Coyotes and Stars, even the deepest of pockets can end up in bankruptcy, so a stable, cash rich market, flush with hockey fans is a dependable stream of revenue.
The players should support a second team in Southern Ontario as any team in the market would likely spend to the cap on a regular basis. Another team spending to the cap and bidding on free agents, would put upward pressure on player salaries, meaning more money for the NHLPA as a whole. In the five full years following the lockout, the Coyotes spent $201,000,000 on salaries, whereas a cap team's payroll would have topped $246,000,000 million. $9,000,000 in yearly salary in not a negligible amount, especially considering the collapse in the market for checkers and bottom of the roster veterans.
When it comes to relocation, fans shouldn't wax nostalgic. Though the return of the Nordiques and Jets is a romantic one, it's Southern Ontario that better positions the league for the future. Given the struggles the league has faced since the final round of expansion, it's about time someone in the began to worry about the long-term stability of the league. Give the fans the Hamilton Attawandaron, the Brampton Bills, the Mississauga Chonnonton or the Burlington Braves, it doesn't matter, just give them stability and opportunity.