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

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.

The court ruling validates the right of the NHL and its franchise owners to decide who owns its hockey teams and where they play their home games. Some of the resistance was personal: Bettman and the owners have made clear they don’t want to let Balsillie, who has tried three times to buy a hockey team, into their elite club. He rubs them the wrong way. The Toronto Maple Leafs also believe they have a veto against any new team moving into their territory, which as far as they’re concerned, includes Hamilton.

The veto claim might someday be challenged in an anti-trust lawsuit. For Leafs fans — in their fourth decade of suffering with a mediocre team while its owners pocket huge profits — that day can’t come soon enough. Competition might finally force the Leafs to invest in quality players and lower ticket prices. More problematic for the NHL in the short term is the growing sense in Canada of a league snubbing a hockey-crazed country that produces most of its players. Only six of the league’s 30 teams have Canada as a home. Yet it’s the sixth time the league has blocked U.S.-based teams from moving north of the border. The NHL has never stopped a Canadian team from heading south, including the Winnipeg Jets, which became the now bankrupt Coyotes.

Damien Cox, the hard-hitting hockey columnist for the Toronto Star, calls it the Anywhere But Canada rule.

Balsillie had made patriotism a key part of his bid to buy the Coyotes.

“From the beginning, my attempt to relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton has been about Canadian hockey fans and Canadian hockey,” he said, after the court ruled against him. “All I wanted was a fair chance to bring a seventh NHL team to Canada, to serve the best unserved hockey fans in the world.”

Instead, the NHL is determined to press ahead with bringing hockey to America’s Sunbelt, despite the precarious state of several teams already there, including those in Florida. It’s about money, of course, the big network contracts and sponsorship deals potentially available in the U.S.

And so the talk is of a future team in Las Vegas. I can almost hear Mordecai Richler growling in his grave: “And what are they going to call them, the Showgirls?”