Commentary

Times have changed for Canadian clubs

Updated: December 16, 2009, 11:26 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Gary Bettman smiled at the question.

A decade ago, the NHL commissioner would come to these board of governors meetings and get grilled about the survival of Canadian teams.

In case you forgot, it wasn't that long ago that Les Alexander flew into Edmonton on his private jet and offered to buy the Oilers and move them to Houston. That was right around the time the Ottawa Senators were in bankruptcy protection, the Montreal Canadiens were sold for peanuts and the Canadian federal government was being pressured to help out the country's struggling clubs.

How times have changed, and rather quickly.

Now, buoyed by a salary cap and strong Canadian dollar, not only are the six thriving Canadian teams, but there is also pressure on Bettman to add another team in the Great White North.

Funny, no?

"The cycles of life never cease to amaze me," Bettman said as the board of governors meeting wrapped up Wednesday. "Yes, I remember very clearly the prognostications by some of your [media] colleagues that there would be one team left in Canada and everybody else would be in the United States.

And now, the prognostication is, 'No, we've got clubs that need to move out of the United States.' It wasn't right originally, and it's not right now, but it's part of what we deal with, and it's OK. Time will tell, as it did and as it will. But I'm comfortable that all 30 clubs should be right where they are."

Bettman made that clear again to his owners and team executives this week here in Pebble Beach. Despite the wide-spread interest -- from some of his own governors, but mostly from fans and media -- to have a team back in Quebec City, Winnipeg or a second club in Toronto, it was a subject that wasn't even brought up at these meetings this week.

"We didn't have the macro discussion about relocation or expansion," said Bettman. "As far as it went was obviously we're trying to ensure that the Coyotes stay in Glendale. And if that doesn't work, then we'll have to have a Plan B. But that's not something we're working on now. The focus of our attention is getting new ownership in place for Glendale."

Time will tell if Ice Edge can make a go of it in Phoenix, where the team is bleeding red ink and the market has suffered damages from a near relocation. If Ice Edge can't make a go of it two or three years from now, that's when relocation talk will heat up again.

And the Coyotes aren't the only trouble spot. Throw in Nashville, Atlanta, Florida (yes, despite new ownership) and the Islanders, and you've got other relocation possibilities. The interested parties include Las Vegas, Kansas City, Seattle, Houston and, yes, the three options in Canada.

Even though Bettman decided not to bring up the possibility of a seventh team in Canada this week does not mean it's something that won't happen down the road. It suggests the commissioner doesn't want to fan the flames on a highly sensitive subject until he feels more comfortable with how things have played out in his trouble spots.

Consider, for example, what he had to say when asked by your humble hockey reporter about the confusion regarding whether or not the Maple Leafs had a veto that could block a second NHL team from playing in Toronto. This sounded like a man who has given this much more thought than he's let on.

"There is no veto," said Bettman, slowly articulating those words seemingly for emphasis. "There are two votes that, from a constitutional and bylaw standpoint, would be important. The relocation of a franchise requires a majority vote. Period. End of story. No veto. The grant of an expansion team, because that's also a new owner and a new team, requires a three-quarter vote. No vetoes."

As long as the board of governors votes accordingly, the Leafs, according to Bettman, have no say in the matter.

"I understand that there's ongoing confusion about that point, but there shouldn't be," added the commissioner.

When it was suggested that the Leafs seem to think they have a veto, Bettman said: "I don't think so. They know better."

For now, it's a moot point. It's not going to happen in the short term. The league is focused on all 30 teams being right where they are. That's not to say, however, there won't be NHL games in a seventh Canadian city next season. If Ice Edge has its way, the Coyotes will play five regular-season games in Saskatoon next season.

"We told the governors that that was something [Ice Edge] had requested and it's something that the board will review at the appropriate time," Bettman said. "There are a whole lot of other issues that need to be resolved before we get to that. People know that it's something that Ice Edge has put on the table, and it'll get reviewed in due course like everything else if the transaction is successfully consummated."

A quick survey of governors who were leaving the meetings Wednesday seemed to indicate the Saskatoon idea wasn't being warmly received.

"Whether or not that will ever come to pass is very highly speculative," said Calgary Flames president and CEO Ken King. "Based on what we heard, it is not something that I think is likely to happen."

The concern, of course, is whether you're opening Pandora's Box with allowing the games in Saskatoon. Where does it end? How many more teams will then decide to hold games at other neutral sites? The league tried that in the early 1990s and it wasn't a rousing success. So before saying yes to Saskatoon, let's think this through.

"I think that's the issue. We want a plan," said Edmonton Oilers president and CEO Pat Laforge. "If we're going to play in satellite markets around North America ... Houston, Seattle, London, Ontario, good hockey markets, potentially, you have to have a plan so the fans in the marketplace can see what you're doing and can buy into it."

Saskatoon, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Toronto ... who knew Canada would come back to be such a player in the league it founded in a Montreal hotel in 1917. Will there be a seventh Canadian NHL team? Sooner or later, no question.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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