Toronto has a long-standing love affair with the Maple Leafs. Win or lose – mostly the latter – the Leafs continue to thrive. Forbes Magazine recently reported that the Maple Leafs are the first NHL franchise to be worth $1 billion. But could Toronto start two-timing on the Leafs by becoming a two-team NHL town? One suburb likes the idea.
The City of Markham – population 310,000 – borders on Toronto, so it’s not a long haul to the Air Canada Centre to see a Maple Leafs home game. But Markham is exploring the possibility of luring its own NHL team with a $325-million, 20,000-seat arena. The city has a deal to split the tab with an organization backed by the Remington Group, a large development firm.
Last week, 500 residents turned out for a seven-hour city council meeting about a proposal to end that cost-sharing agreement. Many proponents and opponents believed killing the deal – and thereby removing public money from the equation – would also kill Markham’s NHL dreams. By a single vote, the council denied the proposal and kept the arena plan alive.
“We’ve seen this movie before in the Greater Toronto Area and it’s been a box-office bust,” Toronto Star sports columnist Dave Feschuk told Only A Game. He points out that you can still see the results of a similar project carried out in the mid-1980s in the nearby city of Hamilton.
“30 years later Copps Coliseum is still standing, still being subsidized by the public on its operating costs to the tune of $2.8 million a year, and has only hosted minor-league hockey games and the occasional NHL exhibition game,” Feschuk said. “The cautionary tales never seem to register with ambitious entrepreneurs who believe they can their hands on big pockets of the public purse.”
Markham still needs to make several moves before an agreement to build a new arena is finalized. And NHL officials have denied that they’re considering expansion or team relocation. But there’s more to the city’s plan than just NHL frozen fantasies.
University of Ottawa professor Norm O’Reilly has conducted extensive analysis of which Canadian markets are in the best position to welcome an NHL franchise – or another NHL franchise. He said Toronto’s growth makes it a prime candidate.
“By most scales [it's] the fourth or fifth largest market in North America. And so in terms spending, media, etc., it’s a booming, booming place,” O’Reilly said. “And so for the first time ever – this is probably only in the last 10 years – it could even be feasible to support media, sponsors, fans, [and] two teams, and in fact maybe they could support three or four in the NHL because of the passion for hockey.”
Like New York, which has two teams in all the major pro sports, Los Angeles knows about the ups and downs of being a two-team town. The Lakers and Clippers’ NBA rivalry is the best it’s ever been. And baseball’s geographically confused Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim face the Dodgers in interleague play. Los Angeles Magazine contributor David Davis said the makings of a real feud began when the Anaheim Ducks won their first Stanley Cup in 2007, five years before the L.A. Kings got theirs.
“They heard from their fans,” Davis said. “The Kings have been here since ’67 and they never won a Stanley Cup and here the Ducks waltz in and win one fairly … within short order.”
And winning is usually important. The Maple Leafs haven’t hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1967, but Feschuk said if Markham ever does secure an NHL team, the new franchise won’t be able to skate along like the Leafs or the famously futile half of Chicago’s two-team baseball fraternity: the Cubs.
“Long term, if you’re not performing on the ice, you’re not going to recreate the Maple Leafs’ scenario where you could be terrible year after year after year and still cash in,” Feschuk said. “That’s a one-off. That’s built on years and years of generational angst and heartache, grandfathers handing it down to fathers handing it down to sons.”
On professor Norm O’Reilly’s report card, Greater Toronto gets high marks for possibility – but probability is heading for summer school.
“Could it work in Toronto, a second team? A+++,” O’Reilly said. “Franchise viability, which is, could it happen? I put a D-minus because the chance of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL, and the Buffalo Sabres letting it happen from a political perspective, in my view is very close to zero.”
But, as every hockey fan knows, predicting the NHL’s next move can be like predicting the bounces of a puck in front of the net.