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Fans join Hamilton mayor and premier in Balsillie's push for NHL team

HAMILTON, Ont. - The possibility of a NHL franchise settling in the Steel City is very real, Hamilton's mayor said Wednesday as Ontario's premier called the prospect of another team in the province exciting and thousands of fans signed on to a web site to push for it to happen.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said Hamilton was prepared to do whatever it could to try to land a team in light of a $212.5-million offer by Research In Motion tycoon Jim Balsillie to buy the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes if he can move them to southern Ontario.

Having an NHL franchise would be a huge boon for the city's economic development, drawing fans from a large area and put the city in direct hockey competition with Toronto, Eisenberger said.

"That would be a great rivalry," the mayor said.

For his part, Premier Dalton McGuinty said he would love to see another franchise in the region, saying this is still "our game."

While McGuinty said he would cheer on the team, he would leave it to the private sector to land it.

Balsillie's lawyers have recommended to the bankruptcy court that an auction for the Coyotes begin in early June and end June 26 and that any bid would have to beat his offer by $5 million to defeat it.

Balsillie, who made billions from his company's BlackBerry, tried two years ago to snag the Nashville Predators and move them to Hamilton. The move was scuttled by the Predators' owner, who accepted a lower price in exchange for keeping the team in Nashville.

The league itself has opposed adding another team to southern Ontario given Hamilton's proximity to both Toronto and Buffalo.

McGuinty said that strategy makes no sense.

"This is a great market," the premier said. "We could easily fill up another arena somewhere in southern Ontario with rabid hockey fans."

Some of those fans are already making their views known through an online website set up by Balsillie's bid team.

Less than a day after the www.makeitseven.ca went live to press for a seventh NHL franchise in Canada, more than 61,000 people had signed on, said Bill Walker, of Toronto-based Veritas Communications, which helped develop the site.

Eisenberger said he was not surprised to hear the head of the organization that runs the city's Copps Coliseum indicate that another investor has been talking about moving a team there.

Since the demise of Balsillie's Predators bid, Hamilton has continued to look for other hockey possibilities, said Eisenberger.

"We haven't been sitting on our hands," he said. "I know there are other interested parties."

Eisenberger also said it made financial sense to relocate a team to Hamilton given that so many of them are struggling to make ends meet or skating in red ink.

"I would be willing to bet that the board of governors of the NHL would be very interested to bring a hockey team to a market that is financially sustainable," he said.

Hamilton is already home to the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs, the farm team of the NHL's Montreal Canadiens.

- written by Colin Perkel in Toronto

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