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Posted: Wednesday September 23, 2009 12:00PM; Updated: Wednesday September 23, 2009 12:05PM
Frank Deford Frank Deford >
VIEWPOINT

Let Canada have the Coyotes

Story Highlights

Expansion into southern U.S. cities has not justified the NHL's confidence

The bankrupt Coyotes are now trapped in Phoenix in vain service to TV ratings

There's no evidence that Las Vegas or K.ansas City cares about them, either

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wayne-gretzky.2.jpg
Even the presence of hockey's iconic ambassador Wayne Gretzky did not inspire much interest in the NHL in Phoenix.
AP

Long ago, late one evening in 1966, I was in a suite at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto with some folks from the National Hockey League. They were all feeling pretty heady. The league was about to double in size, with an incursion into the United States that would take Canada's game as far south as Los Angeles. Since the NHL had long been a huge success in its six franchise cities, all of which were all clustered pretty close to both sides of the Canadian border, everybody was certain that great times lay ahead in the expansion outposts. Also, optomism was fueled by a bottle of good Canadian whiskey.

When the last drop was consumed, someone tossed it onto the floor. "Dead soldier," he said. An old coach pointed at the empty bottle and laughed. "That'll be the National Basketball Association after we start next year." And everybody raised their glasses, confidently.

Of course, it didn't work out quite that way. Within a few short years, Jack Kent Cooke, the Canadian expatriate owner of the Los Angeles franchise, would moan: "They told me there were three hundred thousand Canadians who'd moved to Southern California. How was I to know that they were the three hundred thousand Canadians who didn't like hockey?"

What the NHL found out way back then is that it's hard to export a sport to any place where most residents are unfamiliar with the game. Hockey? The NHL has even tried to move into territory unfamiliar with ice. But the league has pressed on, forever sprinkling franchises into places like Miami and Nashville and Raleigh in a vain effort to be a fully national American television sport. It doesn't ever seem to do any good. NHL ratings are traditionally woeful, especially down south. By contrast, nobody has been dumb enough to try and force grits on the good citizens of Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia.

The Phoenix Coyotes, largely unnoticed by the inhabitants of Arizona, have gone bankrupt. A wealthy Canadian wants to pay almost a quarter of a billion dollars to buy a franchise that is worthless in the desert and move it to Hamilton, Ontario, where it would be positively adored. You would think the NHL would embrace this sports philanthropist with tears of joy. But no, the NHL is fighting in bankrupcy court, desperately, to hold onto the Coyotes. If they can't make it in Phoenix, then inflict them on Kansas City or Las Vegas, where there is also no evidence that the populace cares about hockey. Just keep them in the United States, so the NHL might get a tick more in the Nielsen ratings.

What a shame.

Look, it's no insult for a sport not to be appreciated everywhere. Pride and television are no match for love and cheers, and hockey is too good a game to be held up to ridicule just because its vainglorious patrons' reach exceeds their grasp. The NHL should render unto Canada what is Canada's and let the Coyotes go back up north to where hockey is understood and the team is wanted.

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