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Hockey: Why Can't The NHL Just Keep It Canadian?
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Hockey: Why Can't The NHL Just Keep It Canadian?

Hockey: Why Can't The NHL Just Keep It Canadian?

Hockey: Why Can't The NHL Just Keep It Canadian?
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/113077058/113107208" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Glendale, Ariz., Mayor Elaine Scruggs and Coyotes Managing Partner Wayne Gretzky drop the puck. i

Better Days: In 2003, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and Glendale, Ariz., Mayor Elaine Scruggs dropped a ceremonial puck at a Phoenix Coyotes game. In addition to coaching the team, Gretzky has been a part owner. Barry Gossage/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Barry Gossage/Getty Images
Glendale, Ariz., Mayor Elaine Scruggs and Coyotes Managing Partner Wayne Gretzky drop the puck.

Better Days: In 2003, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and Glendale, Ariz., Mayor Elaine Scruggs dropped a ceremonial puck at a Phoenix Coyotes game. In addition to coaching the team, Gretzky has been a part owner.

Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Long ago, one evening in 1966, I was in a suite at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto with some folks from the National Hockey League. They were all feeling pretty heady. The league was about to double in size, an incursion into the United States that would take Canada's game as far south as Los Angeles.

Since the NHL was a huge success in all its six franchise cities in Canada and the northern U.S., everybody was certain that great times must lie ahead in the expansion outpost.

Also, optimism was fueled by a bottle of good Canadian whiskey. When the last drop was consumed, someone tossed it onto the floor.

"Dead soldier," he said. An old coach pointed at the empty bottle and laughed. "That'll be the National Basketball Association after we start next year."

And everybody raised their glasses, confidently.

Of course, it didn't work out quite that way.

Within a few years, Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Los Angeles franchise, would moan: "They told me there were 300,000 Canadians who'd moved to Southern California. How was I to know that they were the 300,000 Canadians who didn't like hockey?"

What the NHL found out is that it's hard to export a sport to where most residents are unfamiliar with the game. Hockey? The NHL has even tried to move into territory unfamiliar with ice.

But the league has pressed on, forever sprinkling franchises into places like Miami and Nashville and Raleigh in a vain effort to be a fully national American television sport. It doesn't seem to do any good. NHL ratings are traditionally woeful, especially down South.

By contrast, nobody has been dumb enough to try to force grits on the good citizens of Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia.

The Phoenix Coyotes, largely unnoticed by the inhabitants of Arizona, have now gone bankrupt. A wealthy Canadian wants to pay almost a quarter of a billion dollars to buy a franchise that is worthless in the desert, and move it to Hamilton, Ontario, where it would be positively adored.

But the NHL is fighting in bankruptcy court to hold on to the Coyotes.

What a shame. Look, it's no insult for a sport not to be appreciated everywhere. Pride and television are no match for love and cheers, and hockey is too good a game to be held up to ridicule just because its vainglorious patrons' reach exceeds their grasp.

The NHL should render unto Canada what is Canada's and let the Coyotes go where they are wanted.

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