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Hockey-crazed Canada can't keep the puck on its own turf

How a billionaire's thwarted effort to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to Ontario reinforces the troubling trend of NHL teams migrating south.

Montreal Canadiens' Andrei Markov falls to the ice after being hit by a deflected puck during third period NHL hockey action against New Jersey Devils in Montreal, Dec. 6, 2008. Though the majority of NHL hockey players come from Canada, the country boasts only six of the league's 30 teams. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — When acclaimed novelist Mordecai Richler was alive, he could often be found in the middle of the afternoon sipping a glass of Macallan’s single malt whisky — his favorite — in a basement pub in downtown Montreal called Woody’s.

Richler, who died in 2001, oozed Montreal. The poor Jewish neighborhood around St. Urban Street, where he grew up, inspired his writing. And the city’s storied hockey team — the Canadiens — fueled his passion.

He was also an acerbic commentator of Quebec politics, the bogeyman of those who wanted to make the province an independent country, which resulted in my interviewing him several times throughout the 1990s. But never did he sound more willing to talk than when I asked for his views on hockey.

He was already at the bar, scotch in hand, when I walked into Woody’s for our 3 p.m. rendezvous. It was the spring of 1993 and the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the last game of a semi-final series against the Los Angeles Kings. A Leafs victory would result in a Stanley Cup final against their legendary rivals the Montreal Canadiens. The last time that happened was 1967.

The thought of a match-up last seen when the National Hockey League was made up of its original six teams had the normally grumpy Richler almost chatty. He was no fan of the Leafs, but he wanted them to cream Los Angeles, one of the teams that began a league expansion into southern U.S. cities where he felt the game wasn’t appreciated.

Indeed, the Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were poised to enter the league the following season, and the thought had Richler rolling his eyes.

“The Mighty Ducks,” he growled. “What kind of a name is that for a hockey team?”

I can only imagine what Richler would have said about the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes.

An Arizona judge last week rejected the $242.5 million-bid by BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the bankrupt Coyotes. Canadian hockey fans received the decision with disgust.

Balsillie, a Canadian, wanted to move the team to Hamilton, a hockey mad city in southern Ontario, whose fans now have to travel 65 traffic-choked kilometers (40 miles) to Toronto to catch an NHL game. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fought him every step of the way, and won. The Coyotes are staying in the desert — at least for now — where even dirt cheap tickets can’t fill the arena.