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Canadians reluctantly export hockey
Simple economics forces the sport's heartland to sell franchisese and stars


© Post-Standard, The (Syracuse, NY)
November 2, 1995


It's usually impossible to sour the taste of Grandma Olive's cooking as it makes its way down the throat of Syracuse Crunch forward Tyson Nash.


The trading of Wayne Gretzky, though, well that's a tough thing for a young Edmonton Oilers fan to swallow.


Nash, an Edmonton native, will never forget Aug. 9, 1988, when the Oilers slashed their budget by trading hockey's greatest player to Los Angeles. He was visiting Ruth Olive, enjoying his grandmother's culinary skills.


"We heard the news, my mouth dropped open," Nash said. "I could almost shed a tear."


Nash was one of Canada's lucky hockey fans. He still had his Wayne Gretzky wallpaper. And the Oilers remained in town, although more money-saving deals gutted a championship team.


The big business of the National Hockey League doesn't always have a gentle touch in a country that takes the sport to heart. Quebec lost its franchise to Denver, Colo. Winnipeg is in the process of being sold, and the team will be in Minneapolis next year.


The NHL has 26 teams, but next year there may be only six in Canada. Player salaries, which for a long time lagged behind those of football, baseball and basketball, are soaring. According to a survey by The Hockey News, the NHL's average ticket price of $34.26 is the highest among the four major sports.


Simply put, the economics of the league are forcing it to outgrow many of the smaller Canadian cities that nurture hockey. And that leaves a trail of resentment.


"All my friends are (upset)," said Crunch center Lonny Bohonos, who is from Winnipeg. "It's a joke. Winnipeg's going to be like Regina (Saskatchewan). There's nothing to do there."


Most of the Crunch players take a detached view of the NHL's exodus from their homeland. They used to be as passionate as other fans, but at some point the game became a business.


They want to play in a thriving NHL. If that means introducing the game to new cities at the expense of Canadian locales, so be it.


"It's the world of hockey," said center Rick Girard, an Edmonton native. "It used to be a game. Now it's a business."

Teammate Brian Loney, who is from Winnipeg, agreed.


"I sort of resent it. But you look at both sides," he said. "It (bigger cities) is where the money is. Sometimes it's for the better of the game."


Goalie Sonny Mignacca, who is also from Winnipeg, follows that logic. But he still sees the Jets as a valuable local resource.


"I understand. I know a lot of people in Winnipeg don't," he said. "I learned a lot going to Winnipeg games. Now, young kids growing up, what do they do? They watch a Junior B team play? There's a bit of difference there."

Quebec hockey fans have a sympathizer in Syracuse forward Ian McIntyre. McIntyre is from Montreal, but he played junior hockey in Quebec.


"I think it (the Nordiques leaving) is bad," McIntyre said. "It gives Quebec a bad name. I can tell you it's a good hockey town."


Crunch general manager David Gregory will never have to worry about the NHL closing shop in his hometown. He grew up following the Toronto Maple Leafs, a task made easier because his father, Jim, used to be general manager of that team.


Jim Gregory is now vice president of hockey operations for the NHL. David thinks that league wants to preserve as many Canadian franchises as it can.


"No one wants it (Canadian markets failing) to happen," he said. "But no one has a solution about how to make hockey survive in Winnipeg or Quebec. Revenue generated as a league as a whole has to make sure it supports smaller markets. From a long-term perspective of the sport, supporting smaller Canadian teams is for the good of hockey."


But the best support the NHL can give to many Canadian fans might be to fill their cars with gas.


"I have a lot of family in Canada," McIntyre said. "One day I'd like to play in front of them. I guess they'll have to come to the States, watch me here."