After years of concentrating on America's Sun Belt, NHL officials are reportedly intrigued by the prospects of reestablishing operations in Quebec City and Winnipeg. Combine that with the league's interest in a team in Toronto's suburbs and the possibility of the Coyotes landing in Hamilton, and you may have a league reaching back to its Canadian roots.
Let's face it: Gary Bettman hasn't had the best record when it comes to exporting Canada's national sport to America's Sun Belt. The Phoenix Coyotes, of course, are in bankruptcy. The Atlanta Thrashers are on the market, though the owners have been told to hold off on any sale until the Coyotes situation is resolved. Despite new owners, the future of the Nashville Predators is precarious. The Tampa Bay Lightning's financial woes are well-documented. And the Florida Panthers brought in new investors to make ends meet in Miami.
The NHL's move to the Sun Belt was designed to do one thing: make the NHL a more attractive proposition for American sports-cable networks. With the passing of the league's ESPN deal, that business strategy appears to be worthless.
So it's no surprise that Canadian cities are back in vogue in the Commissioner's office: Canadian teams are sure draws even if corporate support lapses, and Canadian fans are the most passionate when it comes to their national sport. (Sorry, diehard Rangers and Bruins fans.) Yes, it does make the NHL a niche sport — but as we enter an area where niches rule, that's not necessarily the worst place to be.
The latest hot rumor is that Bettman and crew are looking favorably upon Quebec City as a new NHL venue, given that the city is moving ahead with a new arena to replace the venerable Colisee. In compiling a list of desirable cities as future NHL bases, Bettman told the Toronto Sun that the league favors cities that have hosted NHL hockey in the past, specifically mentioning Quebec City and Winnipeg. He also spoke favorably about Hamilton as a future venue, though the league has talked with groups looking to bring a team closer to Toronto. Heck, the league is on the verge of scheduling some Coyotes home games in Saskatoon if it retains control of the franchise.
Add the three together, and you could have a renaissance of hockey in Canada — something that would surely make Don Cherry's head explode in sheer delight.