Canadian teams keep NHL afloat

A secret NHL report detailing the ticket revenues of its 30 teams reveals what Canadian hockey fans have long suspected and offers a compelling case for putting more teams north of the border.

The six Canadian teams account for 31 per cent of the $1.1 billion US in league ticket revenue, and have gone through league-leading double-digit increases over last season, according to the internal NHL report.

Overall, the league has seen its ticket revenue rise almost 10 per cent, but 11 of the 24 U.S.-based clubs were either revenue-flat or lost ticket income.

Atop the list of income winners is the Maple Leafs, who nudged out the Montreal Canadiens to lead the league this past season with $1.9 million worth of ticket revenue per game. Based on 41 home games, that’s $77.9 million a year — not counting revenue from preseason games. A year ago, the Leafs generated $1.5 million a game, according the report obtained by the Star from several league sources.

The increase in the value of the Canadian dollar may be responsible for as much as half of the league’s revenue gains since the NHL went through the lockout of 2004-05, say several sources familiar with NHL finances.

“If you take out the Canadian teams, which have done so well since the lockout largely because of the Canadian dollar, the league’s revenues are actually only growing at a two per cent clip per year,” says an executive with a U.S.-based NHL team, who requested anonymity.

The figures are sure to embolden Research In Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie in his efforts to add another Canadian-based team to the NHL. He has been stymied twice by the league in attempts to buy a U.S. club and bring it to southern Ontario.

“This really makes the case for another team in Canada, whether it’s Hamilton, Winnipeg or Quebec City,” says former Vancouver Canucks owner Arthur Griffiths.

“I think Hamilton has the best facility, but obviously faces challenges in what it would have to pay Toronto and Buffalo. Winnipeg is a good possibility, but the market there has shown a resistance to paying top dollar for tickets … while Quebec City needs a huge infusion of investment for a new facility.”

The NHL has refused comment on the internal report.

NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly has reviewed the document and said it highlights the importance of placing more franchises in Canada, instead of potential expansion cities such as Las Vegas, Houston or Kansas City.

“I think it would be a huge error not to relocate one of the existing franchises to Hamilton or Winnipeg,” Kelly said.

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