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Leafs sale means Toronto one step closer to second NHL team

An artist's rendition of the proposed new 20,000-seat arena in Markham, Ontario.

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An artist's rendition of the proposed new 20,000-seat arena in Markham, Ontario.

The first impression the new owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs made on you probably depends upon which target audience you comprise. If you’re a member of the business or investment community, they likely hit a tape-measure home run. This deal will undoubtedly open the taps even more at the Air Canada Centre and keep the money flowing.

But if you’re a fan, there was nothing in their initial address that would make you any more optimistic about a championship than you were prior to the announcement. Sure, these guys would love to win a Stanley Cup and if that’s a byproduct of their ownership, all the better. But let’s not kid ourselves, their primary concern is with getting their product on as many screens as possible, regardless of how good or bad it is.

Which brings us to the next thing that is crystal clear when it comes to the hockey scene in Toronto. And that is, any opposition to a second NHL team in Canada’s largest city evaporated before the ink was dry on the blood vow Canada’s two biggest communications conglomerates took when they spent $1.32 billion on 75 percent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

And the importance of this cannot be overstated. When MLSE was taken over by BCE and Rogers, it essentially paved the way for the Phoenix Coyotes to move to the Greater Toronto Area as early as this summer, right around the time the Leafs sale gets approved by the NHL’s board of governors. Provided the group that is proposing to build a 20,000-seat arena in Markham (http://www.thehockeynews.com/articles/43120-Campbell-Construction-of-NHLsized-arena-to-be-proposed-in-Southern-Ontario.html) can get its shovels in the ground by then, the GTA will almost certainly emerge as the top contender to get the Coyotes.

Forget Quebec City for now. No owner, no clear vision for a new rink and exactly who is going to pay to have it built, which will likely scuttle its bid. There’s little chance Quebec will have all those details ironed out by the spring, when the league has to either have the Coyotes sold or decide whether it wants to continue to prop them up. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has already indicated the league has no appetite to do that and even pointed to the fact the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg wasn’t made until last May. That leaves the second Toronto team, which will likely be welcomed into the NHL by open, unanimous arms now that the team has been released from the clutches of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

The Toronto/Markham group, led by Bauer chairman Graeme Roustan and Toronto billionaire developer Rudy Bratty, has its financing and building site in place, has gone through the design process and is well on its way to getting local approval to start building early in 2012.

There’s a good chance a Toronto franchise would have received approval from the NHL’s board of governors, anyway, but there was always the sticking point concerning the Maple Leafs and their belief they held a veto over any other team entering their territory, a belief supported by the league’s own constitution. But the NHL was just as adamant that no such veto ever existed and they were confident they were on solid legal ground to place a second team in Toronto despite the objections of arguably its most powerful franchise.

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Well, all those matters are gone now. The fact is, both Rogers and BCE will welcome another NHL team into the Toronto market, so much so that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another Bell Centre or Rogers Arena in the NHL once the new Markham arena is completed. Because as we already mentioned, content is king for these two companies and anything that can supply them with more of that will be eagerly accepted.

You can imagine NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would have wanted to have a unanimous vote on this one, and now he’ll get it. That was never going to come as long as the teachers’ pension plan owned the Leafs, because preserving their monopoly was what provided the best return on the investment for their members.

But with Rogers and BCE, having another outlet to display content will more than make up for the losses they’ll incur by losing their monopoly over the NHL in the biggest, most underserviced hockey market in the world. A new competing building will likely scoop a couple of concert dates from them and their merchandising sales might take a slight hit, but those losses will pale in comparison to the money they could potentially make by carrying an additional Canadian NHL team in the new four-screen universe.

No building for two years, you say? That’s right, but there is speculation the new franchise would try to use Copps Coliseum for two years while the new arena is being built. As long as the league can see by the spring this new building is going to be a reality, that’s an obstacle that can be overcome. And the NHL’s recent realignment will make it easy to move the Coyotes into the same conference as the Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Toronto is closer to getting its second NHL team than it ever has been before. And prospects for that happening took an enormous leap forward when the Maple Leafs were sold last week.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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