Friday, October 13, 2006

Bringing the NHL Back to Hamilton: A Synopsis of Events

This section is a working timeline of attempts to bring the NHL back to Hamilton. I will keep adding to this list as events occur. Please let me know if I have missed or misrepresented anything, I would appreciate any feedback. The goal of this section is provide readers with a factual running record of important and interesting events.


1986—Doomed from the start?
The earliest reports I could find of a possible NHL expansion team going to Hamilton comes from the mid 1980’s. There was a discussion between NHL president John Ziegler and Copps Coliseum boss Brian Conacher. In their conversation, Conacher suggested that the NHL create an all-Canadian division. Unexpectedly, Ziegler was “offended and disturbed” with such a comment, and would therefore oppose any Hamilton attempt for an NHL franchise. Was Hamilton’s bid doomed from start?

October 27, 1989
H. Knox III, President of the Sabres said “if Hamilton is a market, it has to deal with Toronto and Buffalo. Everything is in place on that and one or the other [Buffalo or Toronto] will block it. I can’t say how it would affect Toronto, but, absolutely, [a Hamilton NHL team] would hurt us”.

When people from Hamilton began to question the implications of this statement, not only were they expected to just to suck it up, they were also told not to yap about it. Robert Swados, VP Operations for Buffalo said “if Hamilton wants to get into the NHL, it’s certainly not in its interest to perpetuate this kind of discussion”. So let me get this straight, if Hamiltonians sat back and did nothing to address the possible veto from Buffalo, Hamilton’s chances of getting an expansion team would be slim, and, if Hamiltonians decided to engage in such a discourse, the good people from the Sabres organization would not look favourably on our bid. Wow, thanks for instigating a lose-lose situation.

August 15, 1990—The Race Begins
’s first big attempt at getting a team occurred when the NHL wanted to award 2 new expansion teams. The following cities met the application deadline of Aug 15, 1990 at midnight.

San Diego
Tampa Bay
St. Petersburg

*dropped out before formal bid presentation

August-December 1990: Preparing Bids
Individuals involved with Hamilton’s bid took this opportunity quite seriously. The group hired Gerry Patterson, a Toronto consultant, with a $750,000 finders fee (if Patterson gets Hamilton a team, he also gets three quarters of a million dollars—not a bad incentive). Just weeks before their bid presentation, the Hamilton bid became the only group to meet all the necessary criteria established by the NHL. Here is a list of what the NHL wanted and what Hamilton’s bid had.

1. A building (Copps Coliseum, check)
2. 20 year lease in place (check)
3. Local owner (Ron Joyce, check)
4. Owner with deep pockets (Owner of Tim Hortons, check)
5. Minimum of 10,000 season tickets sold (14,000 sold in 24 hours, check)
6. Market that would support hockey team (50 mile radius, 5 million people, check)
7. Corporate support (70 corporate companies committed to purchasing 70 corporate boxes for a minimum of 5 years, check)

Neither Ottawa nor Tampa Bay had a building, local owner, or a market comparable to Hamilton’s. At the time, no other bid came close to Hamilton’s—the media began talking about Hamilton as being the favourite.

December 5, 1990—Bid Presentations
’s group descended on the Palm Beach Breakers Hotel to make their bid presentation. During this presentation, when asked about paying the $50 million expansion fee, Ron Joyce explained how Hamilton’s situation was unique because they were the only team required to pay indemnification fees. The exact amount of these fees were not disclosed at any time in this process. In fact, the NHL banned any discussion between Hamilton, Toronto, and Buffalo on settling indemnification payments. Because of these unknown additional payments, Joyce could not guarantee the $50 million up front. Instead he offered a compromise—he slapped down $5 million that day, guaranteed $25 million the next year, then $25 million over the next seven. Gerry Patterson was very optimistic about their presentation and was convinced Hamilton would be awarded a team. It was assumed the following day would be used to iron out some of these details.

That night, at a party hosted by Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, four NHL governors began a movement to focus on bids that did not deviate from the financial plan. The only two teams who guaranteed $50 million up front were Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

December 6, 1990—Black Thursday
The NHL announced that the winning bids came from Ottawa and Tampa Bay--the only two bids to guarantee the $50 million up front despite not having met the NHL’s supposedly necessary criteria.

The announcement sparked outrage in Hamilton. I can still remember seeing the Hamilton Spectator the following day, and being completely paralyzed with disbelief. I had bought a copy of the Spec to remember Black Thursday. Just thinking about that day still evokes feelings of nausea.

Speculation on the causes of this result began to hit the presses. Reports coming from Hamilton focused on certain comments made prior to the bid presentations, particularly the Knox quote mentioned earlier. Another example came from Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz who said “a third team in that area might damage Toronto and Buffalo, and that’s a major consideration”. Also, Hamilton alderman John Gallagher said that in a teleconference with a Sabres employee, he was told Buffalo would never allow Hamilton to get a franchise. These claims were serious because if NHL owners and governors had already made up their mind on Hamilton before reviewing the bids, then the whole bid process was an exercise in futility and a waste of Hamilton taxpayer’s money.

December 12, 1990
The Buffalo Sabres organization placed a half page advertisement in the Hamilton Spectator that read: “The Buffalo Sabres wish to assure the hockey fans of the City of Hamilton that neither the Sabres nor the Toronto Maple Leafs in any way ‘blocked’ or ‘vetoed’ the granting of a franchise to Hamilton”. The Sabres declined to make any further comments on the topic. It sounded more like damage control, especially considering about 15% of Buffalo’s season ticket holders were from Hamilton at that time.


April 28, 1993
The owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Pocklington, gave the City of Edmonton an ultimatum: improve the lease conditions for Northlands Coliseum and other concessions, or the Oilers will be moved to Hamilton. Some changes Pocklington had in mind included taking a piece of the parking and advertising revenue, and to exclude a commitment to keeping the team in Edmonton for 20 years.

Even at this time, Hamiltonians were weary of being used as a bargaining chip. The prescient Dominic Agostino (Hamilton Alderman) said “all [Pocklington] is doing is raising people's hopes and expectations and trying to exploit Hamilton and our citizens for his own purposes" (Toronto Star, Apr 28, 1993). Memories of Black Thursday must have still been lingering in the back of Dominic’s mind.

June, 1993
Pocklington visited Hamilton to tour Copps Coliseum.

July 5, 1993
Pocklington decided to keep the team in Edmonton and apologized to hockey fans in Hamilton. People are so nice to us.


May 6, 1996
Mayor Bob Morrow requested cash from the Federal Minister of Finance Paul Martin and Ontario Premiere Bob Rae to help lure the troubled Winnipeg Jets to Hamilton, to no avail.

May 13, 1996
This week, a group of Hamiltonians, including Bob Morrow, Gabe Macaluso, and a group of American invenstors, traveled to Winnipeg to present their bid for the team. Not long after, the Winnipeg franchise decided to stay put, at least for the time being.


The second expansion bid was not as eventful as the first. This time around the Hamilton Spectator gave the city the $100,000 expansion application fee. Mayor Bob Morrow and his team of city councilors traveled to New York City to make a second bid for an expansion team. The strategy this time was ‘give us a team, and we will find an owner’. Not surprisingly, Hamilton was overlooked once again, this time under the leadership of commissioner Gary Bettman, whose love of Hamilton is in the sadistic sense. Someone must have started to feel at least a little bad for Hamilton because they decided to return the $100,000 application fee. Who knew the NHL could be so nice.


January 25, 2003
Richard Rodier (works for law firm in Toronto), representing HHC Acquisition Corp. (Hamilton groups interested bringing an NHL franchise to Hamilton) submitted an application to purchase the Ottawa Senators. At this time there were other discussions on relocating the Buffalo Sabres to Hamilton.


An article in the Star Ledger (Oct 8, 2006) stated that at one point, New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen threatened to move the team to Hamilton, until he got a better lease from the Meadowlands of course. I could not find a date for this though. Now that I look back at this exercise, I could have saved myself some time by outlining teams who did not threaten a Hamilton relocation.


Spring 2004
In an interview with the Hamilton Mountain News, Hamilton Councilor Terry Whitehead mentioned that HHC Acquisition Corp. were in talks with owners of the St. Louis Blues. No other developments have been reported on this lead.


The Pittsburgh Penguins are the latest player in the ‘move the team to Hamilton or maybe not’ game. Fasten your seatbelts, the next few events will once again take you on a bit of a ride.

April, 2004
Richard Rodier once again emerged on behalf of HHC Acquisition Corp. and paid Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Inc. $250,000 for exclusive rights to bring an NHL franchise to Copps Coliseum.

June, 2006
Deadline for HHC Acquisition Corp.’s rights to Copps Coliseum was June 30th, 2006, so they paid an additional $50,000 to extend their rights for another year.

July 11, 2006
Reports out of Pittsburgh identified groups from Hamilton, Houston, Kansas City, and Las Vegas as having interested in the Penguins. HHC Acquisition Corp. emerged as the suitors from Hamilton. Though the identity of people involved with HHC remained anonymous, Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion (i.e. makers of the BlackBerry), was rumoured to be one of those persons.

Other interested groups included: (1) Andy Murstein (presidenet of Medallian Corp.) and Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban (who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks); (2) Sam Fingold (owner of Kenyon Investments) who has ties with Kansas City; (3) Jim Renacci (Ohio businessman and owner of Columbus Destroyers); and (4) Lawrence Gottesdiender (CEO Northland Investment Corp.) who was interested in bringing a team back to Hartford.

July 21, 2006
Not even ten days after a Hamilton group emerged as a possible buyer of the Penguins, reports out of Pittsburgh suggested this group withdrew their bid because of the difficulties in taking the Penguins out of Pittsburgh. One difficulty was the agreement between current Penguins owners and the Isle of Capri, who promised to build an arena in Pittsburgh if they were granted a casino license. Another difficulty came from the NHL, who stressed that the team must remain in Pittsburgh if it can be viable there.

September 16, 2006
When contacted by the Kitchener Record to comment on rumours surrounding his involvement, Jim Balsillie replied “I do not comment on speculation”.

September 18, 2006
once again became a blip on the NHL radar when the Canadian linked to HHC re-emerged as the front runner to purchasing the Penguins. The identity of this person, however, remained anonymous.

September 19, 2006
Hamilton Spectator headline read “RIM’S Balsillie graduates to ‘no comment’ on NHL talk” (Milton).

October 6, 2006
Jim Balsillie purchases the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175 million. This event sparked many news articles and comments on sports forums debating the merits and possibility of moving a team to Hamilton. What irked me during this period were the unfounded comments on Hamilton’s people, economy, and general viability in supporting a team, especially because many of these comments came from fellow Canadians. Expect a few rebuttals to these comments on this blog.

Going back to Balsillie, at no time did he nor anyone else provide confirming evidence that he was linked to HHC.

October 13, 2006
HHC withdrew their rights to Copps Coliseum. Journalists discussed two possible explanations for this move. The first hypothesis is that Balsillie is still playing a game because his purchase still requires the NHL’s rubber stamp. By withdrawing their rights to Copps, Balsillie could alleviate any worries the NHL board of governors might have about his intent to move the team. Once they NHL approves the purchase, and the Isle of Capri deal falls through, Balsillie will make his move to Hamilton. The second hypothesis is that Balsillie is no longer interested in moving the team to Hamilton and decided to drop his ties to Copps. In this case, his intentions may be to keep the team in Pittsburgh or move the team a city other than Hamilton.

October 15, 2006
Balsillie answered questions for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette about possible places to relocate the Penguins. Here is what he said:

"Hamilton? Yeah, the [Toronto Maple] Leafs will be really supportive of that," he said. "Kansas City? I mean, come on. Now I've taken a 40-minute flight [to Pittsburgh] and made it two hours, and to an unproven market.

"They talk about Oklahoma [City]. It's like, puh-lease. And Portland? Puh-lease. Now I'm going from the frying pan into a big fire."


The saga continues with the Nashville Predators and now the Phoenix Coyotes. Too much going on--will update this section once we know the outcome of the bankruptcy auction. Good luck Balsillie and Hamilton!

Star (Dec 6, 1990).
Star (Dec 7, 1990) NHL Rejection a bitter pill for Hamilton. Damien Cox, B1
Toronto Star (Feb 16, 1991) Hamilton bid was doomed from outset, Peter Edwards and Damien Cox, B1.
Kitchener-Waterloo Record (Dec 13, 1990), Sabres purchase newspaper ad to deny they vetoed Hamilton bid, D1
Hamilton Spectator (Jan 25, 2003) Sens longshot for Hamilton, Ken Peters, E. 01
Star Ledger (Oct 8, 2006). A black cloud for Pens’ fans, Rich Chere.
News (July 7, 2006). NHL team seekers ‘credible, successful people’ to be taken seriously, HECFI boss says.
Spectator (Sep 19, 2006). RIM’S Balsillie graduates to ‘no comment’ on NHL talk, Steve Milton.


Anonymous said...

Great history on Hamilton being "screwed" by the NHL, over and over again.

IIRC, though Ottawa and Tampa Bay were supposedly the only cities to offer the full $50 million up front (as per your content and the reason they were chosen), they both could not meet the agreed to and promised 1st payment deadline.

I also seem to recall a sign hanging in Copps after this fiasco that read to the affect "Dear Mr Bettman... The cheques are in the mail. Signed Ottawa and Tampa Bay"... the typical reason/excuse for non-payment from carpetbaggers and scam artists.

I recently had a letter-to-the-editor published in the National Post re NHL and Basille (Dec22) and how the NHL's penchant for doing the same thing over and over again is the classic definition of insanity.

Keep up the good work. It looks so much worse (and sadly true) when you see the actual history as presented in black and white.

Joe S

azac said...

It is so evident that it does not matter who is trying to put a team in Hamilton. It is not Balsillie the NHL has a problem with, it is Hamilton. 1990 is a great example. The NHL will find the most trivial reason to use as an excuse not to grant Hamilton a franchise. Today, Bettman goes on to say that Hamilton would be a good location for expansion? Don't insult our intelligence.