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Second Toronto team should motivate Maple Leafs

An artist's rendition of the proposed GTA Centre in Markham, Ont.

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An artist's rendition of the proposed GTA Centre in Markham, Ont.

Perhaps the most famous part of Jurassic Park is the scene in which a glass of water faintly ripples before a rampaging dinosaur threatens the well-being of the helpless humans. That’s the image that came to mind when news broke this week that Bauer Performance Sports’ chairman Graeme Roustan had formally submitted an application to build a massive professional hockey-ready arena just north of Toronto.

In this situation, the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the humans and the charging dinosaur is the prospect of a second NHL team in the Greater Toronto Area. It is far from a certainty we’ll see the Original Six team competing with a local rival in the next five years, but those barely perceptible waves of water Roustan has set in motion should put Leafs management and ownership on notice.

Although it hardly seems possible given the current frustrations with the Leafs, the pressure to win could soon become even more pronounced with an in-town competitor. And the ramifications of continuing underachievement could eventually have a significant effect on ownership’s financial bottom line.

Now, that isn’t to say current Buds supporters would instantly abandon the inside of the Air Canada Centre and flock en masse to Markham, Ont., where Roustan plans to set shovels and bulldozers and have a state-of-the-art, $325 million, 20,000-seat building opening its doors in 2014. Even if the Leafs finished 30th overall for 10 consecutive years, they always will have a large, insanely dedicated fan base.

But to think the franchise wouldn’t have to pick up its game with another team in town is ridiculous. As it stands now, the Leafs were unable to completely sell out their luxury box suites in recent years and have had to make in-arena pleas on the ACC jumbotron in an attempt to address that issue. If corporations had a big-league alternative for their disposable income mere minutes up the road, Leafs ownership could have an even bigger problem on their hands.

In and of itself, that shouldn’t be a negative for Leafs fans. For too long, being the only hockey game in town – at least, the only one Torontonians have shown they actually care about – has allowed the Leafs to sunbathe atop their bursting bank vault and focus at least as much on corporate shareholders as they do on long-suffering emotional shareholders. Yes, they talk quite passionately about doing everything in their power to bring the city its first NHL championship since 1967, but actions speak louder than words. And for too long, the Leafs’ on-ice actions have shouted down those slick slogans and feel-good community initiatives.

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Similarly, Roustan’s actions also say much more than his carefully considered words these days. The highly successful venture capitalist has made nary a squeak regarding the prospects of bringing an NHL team – either by relocation or expansion – to Markham as the arena’s anchor tenant. But this is a smart man who (a) has pursued ownership of an NHL franchise twice and (b) recognizes the quiet, behind-the-scenes persistence shown by Jets owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson as the NHL’s preferred way of doing business in these matters. He’s not about to rock the boat by making grandiose announcements or challenging the league, as did Jim Balsillie.

But rest assured, Roustan isn’t working with Markham council and private business interests simply to host the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship or the occasional rock concert at his new arena. He understands there are few major markets to which the NHL can transfer a troubled team and expect instant acceptance/success. He accepts he’ll have to be patient and either pounce on a weak lamb franchise or fork over a boatload of expansion fee money to join the club.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and 2014. In the grand scheme of things right now, Roustan’s application is little more than a fly on the nose of the elephantine Leafs franchise. But that water ripple he’s created isn’t without meaning, either. It could be the first harbinger of more challenging days to come for one of hockey’s most storied franchises.

But that’s not a bad thing. If he can create a bona fide local competitor to push the Leafs out of their doldrums, Roustan should be cheered on by Buds fans every step of the way.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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