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The NHL in Saskatchewan? - Lessons from Winnipeg

Speculation has started about Saskatoon getting an NHL franchise. Don Cherry kicked it off on CBC with his comments and endorsement. Bob Mackenzie followed up on TSN and Mark Chipman recently did an interview with the Star Phoneix in Saskatoon to follow up.

At first blush the same snorts, guffaws and knee-jerk dismals that surrounded Winnipeg getting NHL hockey back are in full bloom around Saskatoon. City population is too small. Fan base is not large enough to support a team. An NHL Arena is not there. Corporate support is questionable.

It is amazing how the lessons from Winnipeg have been completely ignored. The disconnect from the upper-echelons of the NHL elite in New York and their very own market.

Gary Bettman's southern expansion went over about as successfully as General Lee's northern invasion in the American civil war. You can imagine a group of Harvard MBA's sitting around a table nodding like "yes men" in agreement and going over demographic charts and market share and all signing off with beaming smiles. Everything is there, large cities of millions of people. Just need a good owner with commitment and the product will sell eventually, just needs time. The calculators humming along, how can it fail?

Well, Mexico City has a population of around 10 million people and you know what? They won't even sell out a 20,000 seat hockey game either.

History speaks for itself.

It is hardly like on-ice success has not happened in the South either. The Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes have all won Stanley Cups. With far shorter histories, they have achieved what older franchises like the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, L.A. Kings, Buffalo Sabres and Washington Capitals have not. The Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes have great hockey operations teams that have built enviable playoff squads on severely constrained budgets.

One of the big surprises of this season has to be the rise of the Florida Panthers who have some how bucked all rational projections and analysis. Dale Tallon's off-season moves have suddenly taken the Panthers to the stature of a playoff team on the verge of breaking their 9 year playoff drought. There has been on-ice success in the South and yet the dollars and large fan bases have not always emerged.

Lets face it, the NHL cat has been given a damn good kick in the southern U.S. and still teams have had financial difficulties, so much so that the next CBA is probably going to see some radical alterations based on it.

Could things be better north of the border?

In the "no" camp there is simply no way Saskatchewan is going to get a team any time soon BUT I do see them as a decent candidate if the NHL goes to another expansion. Most hockey fans hate the idea of expansion due to the dilution of talent but a 32 team NHL is also fully balanced, it has to be in the long, long term planning of the League. Extra dollars come in and those possible expansion teams would likely be in Canadian markets.

That would be the likely path Saskatchewan can look forward to in the distant future.

The NHL should not dismiss Saskatchewan in knee jerk fashion due to its size. It really should learn at this time some of the lessons of Winnipeg.

Lesson (1)

It isn't the number of people in your city, it is the number of hockey fans.

I live in the American south and it is in my personal interest that teams stay here. It allows me to see NHL hockey live but it also breaks my heart to go into that gorgeous arena in Glendale,, and see it half empty when I know there are hockey fans starving for the NHL game in Quebec City, Saskatchewan and other Canadian markets.

It is nothing personal, it is just that hockey is a distant 5th behind even College football in the South. I don't see the point trying to sell refrigerators to eskimos here. Americans love Football like Canadians love Hockey. I don't see this cultural distinction ever changing.

I still remember Gary Bettman's announcement of the Jets returning to Winnipeg and his pitch and encouragement to the fan base to get out and buy those tickets. I laughed out loud when I heard it live at the time. The man still, after such a long tenure as head of the NHL is grossly disconnected in understanding of the market, he had no clue what was about to happen.

The Jets sold out in 17 min with 3-5 year season ticket commitments and had 8000 people on a waiting list by the end of the day and these were expensive tickets. Gary, did you really think you needed to pitch to the people of Winnipeg to go out and buy tickets?

The NHL elite simply does not understand that a city of population 750,000 is a superior market to a city of 5 million when all 750,000 of these people are hockey fans vs a market who one is extremely generous in stating they even have 10% of their population of 5 million interested in hockey and hence 500,000 hockey fans.

Lesson (2)

It isn't the size of the Arena, it is the market price of the tickets times the seats sold.

A very simple math lesson here. Even if we take the wild leap and assume both rinks are sold out, which is a factual inaccuracy, but we will assume it anyway, it is the price the hockey fans in both markets will pay for the product that matters the most.

A 15,000 seat arena with seats at a average price of a 100.00 results in 1,500,000 in revenue. A 20,000 seat arena with seats at 50.00 each results in 1,000,000. See how that works? 33% higher revenue in the smaller market due to them willing to pay twice the price.

Lesson (3) The waiting list and commitments of 3-5 years for season tickets

Most season tickets in the NHL are annual renewals. It was very savvy for True North to require long term commitments. Small market teams should do the same thing. It is an important technique in providing financial security while a team goes through cycles in quality.

Lesson (4) Patience and Persistance

The announcement that the NHL has been approached by potential owners in Saskatchewan is just the first step on a very long journey. The conversation for True North was started in 2001 and that is ten years of work. The point is though that a Saskatchewan venture should be taken seriously.

It is not a fool's errand although Saskatchewan may have to get creative in its own case as Winnipeg did in their own case.

Lesson (5) Get Creative Saskatchewan

The challenges are self-evident. Small market but this province actually needs no help when it comes to innovative thinking. When it comes to ways for the few to band together for interest of the whole. Shhhhh - don't tell anyone south of the border but Saskatchewan is one of the most socialist and innovative provinces in Canada.

Nothing like a collection of farmer's on a cold Canadian prairie that are going to grasp the concept that they have to stick together and help each other out to survive. This province gave Canada its widely acknowledged greatest citizen. Not some Army General or federal politician, not some great athlete but Tommy Douglas the man who brought public health care to his province and fought a hell of a battle to do it.

( i ) Public Ownership

In the absence of a billionaire with deep pockets, the Government of Saskatchewan could do the unthinkable and own part of the team, they could at least support it with tax dollars. Our American neighbor's heads are probably exploding at the very thought of this but in Saskatchewan such a thought may not be treated with such outrage.

It is heading counter-clockwise to the same place the Phoenix Coyotes are today with local tax payers funding the arena via, well lets just say a different method that a few rich folks are taking their skim on. If Saskatchewan is to openly accept this approach transparently and with the democratic endorsement of the people of Saskatchewan, why not? It will be their team and as I said earlier, everyone in the province or close to it is a hockey fan.

( ii ) Consider spliting home games between Regina and Saskatoon

Winnipeg at the naming stage was very seriously considering naming the team the Manitoba Moose. Clearly wanting to tap into the market of the entire province. Smart thinking for a lot of reasons. People who live in the far reaches of the province may not be able to buy season tickets but they will buy merchandise.

IF Regina and Saskatoon both built MTS like Arenas of 15,000 they could consider splitting the home games 20 and 21 games each. It would be much easier for these two cities to sell out 20 NHL games than to sell-out 40 games. They could also split corporate commitments for luxury boxes. It would also really fortify the team as a provincial one and not just one city's.

Edmonton has recently been knocking on the door of the provincial government asking for money to complete their new Arena, a lot of issues with that and one of them being that whatever the province gives Edmonton, Calgary will also want. I imagine there is a degree of rivalry between Saskatoon and Regina to some degree and it may be wise to consider a whole new structure for the team.

I imagine the government of Saskatchewan would face similar issues but this could be avoided by both cities sprucing up local 15,000 seat Arenas and splitting the number of home NHL games between them.

( iii ) Activate the Green Machine of Sask fans - let the NHL know


Anyone who has gone to a CFL football game against Saskatchewan has witnessed this fan base in all of its glory. It is the one area of Canada that just may give Jets fans a run for their money.

Unlike the fickle fans of Vancouver and Calgary, who really need to see on-ice success or they start to disappear, the fan base in Saskatchewan is a rock, if Gary Bettman or anyone from the NHL ivory towers in New York even had an indication of what exists in Saskatchewan when it comes to hockey passion they might not snort off the prospect of a team there.

When it comes to hockey Saskatchewan has never had a chance to illustrate it to the NHL, the kind of fans they have. It amuses me still, and has all season, watching Jets games and listening to the away announcers comment on the passion of Jets fans. Like this was some kind of amazing secret, like they found some secret gold mine.

Seriously, passion in Winnipeg for hockey was no secret. It is that fan base that is the reason why the team will never leave again.

( iv ) Charter Flights between Regina and Saskatoon

Assuming the team is not split between Regina and Saskatoon, consider getting charter flights with no baggage check in place to get Regina fans to Saskatoon to a game and back in one night. Flight time is 18 minutes between these cities. If the right accommodations are made they can be part of a season ticket package if desired.



In short Saskatchewan hockey fans, do not get discouraged in your quest for NHL hockey. Stay persistent and ignore the naysayers, the Negative Nancies and the American Hockey Peacocks. It is not impossible, it is not ridiculous, it is viable.

Jets fans for years have had to listen to mockery on-line from various hockey fans in other markets for years and years. Now Jets fans listen to those teams announcers come to MTS and gush in awe at the passion and sound of Jets fans who have reclaimed their title of the loudest in the NHL.

There are no barriers that can not be overcome to bring NHL hockey to Saskatchewan in some form at some point because Saskatchewan already has an advantage over many existing NHL markets. They have 1 million hockey fans province wide waiting.

Do challenges exist?

Yes they do but your province has an innovative legacy and history and if there is a will, you will find a way.

The nation laughed at Tommy Douglas when he fought hard to bring public health care to Saskatchewan. He stood against powerful and rich elitists and he did it alone. Within a few years the entire nation followed him after he had struggled to break the sod on what is the most cherished feature of nation. So cherished he is considered the greatest Canadian for it.

Saskatchewan has one less hockey rink than Alberta despite being 1/ 3 the population. The love of the game is there, the fans are there and start seeing it for what it is. NHL hockey is something you deserve and can find a way to get.

Start e-mailing the NHL.

Letters are better, the mailing address in New York is

Gary Bettman

National Hockey League
1185 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036

Start making your voice heard.

Just like the countless oblivous announcers who come to Winnipeg and are amazed by the support, let the NHL know what is waiting for the NHL for hockey support in Saskatchewan, they are very likely oblivious to it. It is a long road with a long commitment ahead but hold fast and let your provincial government know as well.

Every year provincial governments spend millions on various fairs and other community initiatives, well guess what?

Supporting a NHL team is something that the people of Saskatchewan may endorse just as much, if not more. It is a new idea to have a sports team supported by the people of Saskatchewan through tax dollars, one that will probably get a lot of back lash but you know what? All that matters is what the people of Saskatchewan think on the matter not those else where and you know what?

You might just teach us all a lesson again and show us something new and innovative. Have at it Saskatchewan...