OTTAWA - While almost two-thirds of Canadians believe the country could support a seventh NHL team, a new poll suggests there is skepticism that Jim Balsillie's bid to bring the Phoenix Coyotes to southern Ontario will succeed.
Almost half of respondents to the Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey said they believed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has no interest in bringing another NHL team to southern Ontario, or anywhere else in Canada.
Nationally, 63 per cent of respondents said another NHL team could thrive in Canada, while 19 per cent disagreed. But overall, 41 per cent said they didn't think the BlackBerry wizard's attempt to buy the bankrupt Coyotes would fly.
In other words, says Harris-Decima's senior vice-president Jeff Walker, a plurality believed "this is not just an issue of Balsillie versus Bettman but, in fact, something bigger - that it's about Gary Bettman and his strategy about the U.S. and that having a new team in Canada or a relocated team in Canada undermines that basic strategy he's got."
Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion, has made a US$212.5-million offer to buy the Coyotes - a bid contingent on the franchise moving to southern Ontario. The NHL is disputing the team's filing in a federal bankruptcy court in Phoenix, saying owner Jerry Moyes signed away ownership rights in exchange for US$38 million in league money to stay afloat.
The survey of just over 1,000 Canadians was conducted May 7-10 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20. Regional breakdowns have greater margins of error.
The national poll suggests Canadians' confidence in a new team's prospects is widespread - 77 per cent of respondents in Alberta, 73 per cent in British Columbia and 66 per cent in Ontario thought the country could support another NHL franchise.
But 41 per cent said it was unlikely Balsillie's bid would succeed, while one in three (34 per cent) said it was likely Balsillie would be successful. Optimism for his bid was highest in Ontario, with 40 per cent of respondents saying they believed the entrepreneur would win.
When asked who was most to blame for blocking the move, 24 per cent of respondents said it was Bettman, while 20 per cent said it was the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, who would be the closest teams to a new southern Ontario franchise.
One in 10 said the fault was with Balsillie and how he's gone about trying to acquire an NHL team - by doing what some have described essentially as an end-run around Bettman and the league.
Walker said it seems many people believe the NHL has a double standard when it comes to saving Canadian teams, citing the former Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordiques.
"But (there's) this incredible fight there to keep these teams in the southern United States where most people look at it and say: 'Are those teams really viable?'
"A lot of people, I think why they follow this is because there's not an easy answer as to why Gary Bettman and the NHL seem to be so opposed to this concept," he said. "No one from the NHL has really articulated a position as to why this is such a horrible idea and why it's such a good idea to have these teams in the southern U.S. continue to lose money."
Will the league's resistance affect NHL support in Canada?
Not a chance, says Walker.
"Canadians love hockey," he said. "Canadians love the NHL. And it doesn't even necessarily matter if there are Canadian teams playing or not. The number of people that I personally know who are watching Pittsburgh-Washington every single night is huge."
Most respondents (39 per cent) saw southern Ontario as the optimal market for a new NHL team, but support also existed for Winnipeg (17) and Quebec City (18).
The league currently has Canadian teams in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. All but Edmonton are consistently among the 30-team league's top 10 in average attendance.