Kris King remembers the cold in Winnipeg. Not just the brutal winters of the Manitoba prairie, but the chill that came at the end, when the city's NHL franchise was dying. He remembers watching children break open their piggy banks to donate to "Save the Jets" drives, all the time knowing that no handful of coins could keep the team from moving to the United States.
"It was very emotional," said King, the Jets' captain when the franchise relocated to Phoenix in 1996. "You have this town of maybe 600,000 people and in all the stores there were areas where you could drop off donations. It was hard on the people, and it was hard on the players, because in some ways they blamed us for the team getting too expensive to keep. I mean, what do you say to a kid who says, `I gave my birthday money so you could stay, and you just want to go somewhere where you can make bigger salaries'?"
Things are different now for King, who just finished a run to the Eastern Conference finals with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto lost the series to Buffalo, four games to one, but the experience left the city buzzing with excitement. The team has a brand-new arena with luxury boxes and club seats and oak-paneled lockers, as well as a bright outlook for next season.
In some ways, the franchises the NHL has lost in small Canadian cities such as Winnipeg and Quebec City seem a million miles away. Then again, in some ways they don't. A few moments after recalling his days with the Jets, King stepped out into the hallway at Air Canada Centre. A fan reached out to pat him on the shoulder, calling out: "All of Canada is watching, Kris. We're counting on you."
The expectations of a nation are a lot to carry onto the ice each night, but in this year's playoffs the Maple Leafs became a lifeboat of hope for a country that sees its national sport drowning in financial distress. Canada has lost two of its eight NHL teams in the last five years, and a third, Edmonton, almost moved to Houston last season. Now the Ottawa Senators are threatening to move south. Those that have stayed are struggling: clubs in big-market cities such as Montreal and Vancouver are reporting large financial losses, while franchises in small-market cities -- unable to pay top free agent dollars for players -- have seen their biggest stars leave town.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and the Canadian government have been arguing over municipal tax rates on NHL franchises, while the teams' general managers nervously watch their banks' currency exchange rates, fearing the weak Canadian dollar will sink even lower. And with each day the public grows more and more agitated, frustrated that no Canadian team has advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in five years.
The situation has declined to the point that the federal government has scheduled a major summit for next month, with Bettman, representatives from all six Canadian teams and representatives from local and provincial governments in attendance. It's hard to imagine the U.S. government stepping into the sports world in such a way, but that may be because the United States regards no sport the way Canada regards hockey.
Here, hockey isn't something you simply watch. It's something you are. Perhaps that's why the current state of the game is so distressing to Canadians.
"It's just a blow," Toronto General Manager Ken Dryden said. "It's something that doesn't feel right. Yeah, life goes on, but just a little bit of spark, just a little bit of possibility, just a little sense of yourself has gone away."
And Dryden is one of the lucky ones. With nightly sellouts, a new building and plenty of corporate and television money, Toronto can overcome all the disadvantages of the Canadian economy and still compete with the best in the NHL. When Dryden needed a goaltender last summer, he went to the free agent market and signed Curtis Joseph, one of the best -- and priciest -- available.
Nine months later, Joseph proved the key to the Maple Leafs' playoff drive. The fans in Edmonton, where Joseph played before becoming a free agent, were not nearly as pleased, however. Neither are those in Calgary who are watching Theo Fleury help the Colorado Avalanche through the Western Conference finals.
Fleury had spent his entire NHL career with the Flames but was set to become a free agent at the end of this, his 11th season. Calgary General Manager Al Coates knew Fleury's salary demands would be out of the Flames' price range, so he traded Fleury to the Avalanche to avoid losing him without compensation. At the time, the Flames were in the race for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff berth. Without Fleury, Calgary ended the season in ninth place, out of the playoffs.
"It was difficult in that he was one of the elite players in the league and a player who quite honestly wanted to stay here," Coates said. "But the difficulty is when you look what it would take to sign him -- maybe four or five million in U.S. dollars. When you sit down and translate that into ticket sales in Canadian dollars, well, the number of tickets you'd have to sell to make up for that, it's astronomical. We just couldn't afford it."
Canadian teams pay most of their bills, particularly salaries, in American money and receive most of their revenue in Canadian money. With the Canadian dollar worth only between 65 and 69 cents in U.S. currency, that causes a financial shortfall. Add in that the average player salary has skyrocketed from $773,000 (U.S.) in 1995 to more than $1.1 million, and teams in big Canadian cities can only afford payrolls equivalent to those of mid-size U.S. clubs. Small-market Canadian teams sometimes feel like minor league franchises.
Canadian teams also are battling tax problems many of their U.S. counterparts don't have. According to Bettman, the Canadiens and Senators each pay more in municipal taxes than all 21 U.S. teams combined, and the tax bill for each Canadian team averages four times that of a U.S. team.
The Canadiens have gone to court to have the municipal taxes on the team's arena, Molson Centre, lowered from the current rate of about $11 million a year, by far the highest in the league. Senators owner Ron Bryden, who is not only paying taxes on Corel Centre but also on the highway exit ramp that leads to it, has said that if his costs are not reduced by the end of the summer he will find a new location in the U.S. for his team.
"Now there's a real time pressure because Bryden has made it clear he must have relief, otherwise he's going to explore his options," Bettman said. "Montreal is one of the top-grossing clubs in the league, but their expenses are unbelievable. . . . Forty percent of their gross revenue -- their gross -- goes to taxes. We need to have a better system that works for all of our teams, both north and south of the border."
While some groups support Bettman's campaign for tax relief, other politicians have lobbied against it, calling it "tax breaks for millionaires." They reason that any extra money teams save through tax cuts would go directly to spiraling player salaries, something many feel is the NHL's problem, not theirs.
As the debate escalated in provincial offices around the country, the fans were distracting themselves by focusing on the Maple Leafs, hoping they would become the first Canadian team in the Stanley Cup finals since 1994, when the Vancouver Canucks lost to the New York Rangers.
At the U.S.-Canadian border, the digital signs above the customs agents' booths read "Go Leafs." Toronto jerseys were being sold in even the finest men's shops, and nearly everyone on the streets seemed to be wearing a blue and white cap. Maple Leafs fever reached as far away as the NATO base in Aviano, Italy, where members of the Canadian Armed Forces taped a message of encouragement that was played before a game on the Jumbotron scoreboard at Air Canada Centre.
In some ways, it was a celebration of everything Canada can be. In some ways, it was a wake for what might not be again any time soon.
"People are looking for something to hold on to and be proud of," said Harry Neale, the analyst for the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcasts. "Between the salaries going up and the revenue possibilities going down, the future for Canadian teams is pretty bleak."
Globalization of a National Sport
The National Hockey League began in 1917 with five Canadian teams. An American division was created in 1926. After much shuffling, the league in 1942 stabilized into six teams -- Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York -- until expansion in 1967. Although four of the teams were based in U.S. cities, nearly all the players at the time were Canadian. Today, more than a third of the NHL's players were born outside Canada.
Number of teams
Nationality of players
Outside North America 1.3%
Outside North America 15%
* The first year the NHL kept statistics on country of birth