A deep-pocketed prospective owner has been quietly positioning himself to make a play for an expansion team for Hamilton — if and when the National Hockey League decides to add franchises, a local businessman and hockey executive says.
"Without question there's a player who wants to have a team in Hamilton," Don Robertson says. "I can assure you of that. I'd bet my life on it."
Robertson, a driving force in senior hockey across the province who's been involved in a number of hockey-related deals over the years — including putting together the local group that bought the Hamilton Bulldogs — says he is now serving as an unpaid adviser to the mystery owner. They were introduced to each other more than a year ago.
The possible owner was apparently already working on this idea for some time before that meeting.
The idea of expansion was raised again this week at the NHL's board of governors' meetings. When commissioner Gary Bettman was asked if adding teams might be in the offing, he stressed that nothing was anywhere close to imminent. Yet his response seemed to open to the door to possibilities down the road.
"We're getting lots of expressions of interest and no decisions have been made to do anything other than listen," he said. "We haven't embarked on a formal expansion process, but when people want to talk to us, we listen."
He then went on to explain that any possible new team would need a rink, a solid hockey market and a good owner. That response suggests the league has given the idea enough thought to develop criteria for an expansion program.
If that day comes, Robertson says Hamilton is ready to be a player in the game.
He says the prospective owner has the ability to put the financing together, even though any expansion fee to land in the hockey hotbed of southern Ontario is expected to cost hundreds of millions. Some of it would be his own money and some would be raised from investors.
Other than that, Robertson will offer no details about the man. He won't name him, say what business he's in or whether he has any past or current ties to the city. The reason for this is simple, he insists.
"I am absolutely convinced there's only one way for us to get an NHL franchise," he says. "The only way this is going to happen is if it happens like Winnipeg."
The Jets, you'll recall, returned to the NHL only after owner Mark Chipman quietly worked in the shadows until everything was in place. He played the game the league's governors wanted and then waited patiently until his opportunity arrived with the failure of the Atlanta Thrashers.
His MO was the opposite of the Jim Balsillie model, in other words, which was public, loud and often antagonistic. And which ultimately landed with a thud.
"The formula for success for getting an NHL franchise for this city or any other city is: shut up," Robertson says.
So the mystery man will remain that for now. No spotlight. No attention. No contact with city hall or staff to avoid leaks. Robertson asked him on Wednesday if he'd like to go public and was told he wouldn't, yet.
Robertson's not even saying how much contact the guy's had with the NHL or whether he's made any inroads with those men who'd eventually have to vote him into the club.
"The strategy would be that there would be no public profile and no talking about it until there's something to say," Robertson says.
Even with an owner, though, there would still be plenty of challenges to finally achieving the decades-long dream of landing a team.
It seems incredibly unlikely the number of franchises added in any expansion project would be greater than two. Both Quebec City and Seattle are seen as favourites. That would seem to limit Hamilton's chances.
Robertson says one of them might end up getting an existing team — he mentioned Florida — which would keep this city in the mix.
Then there's the issue of Copps Coliseum. It isn't getting any newer and might be fine for a team for a time but a new building would probably have to be part of the discussion. That would be a political hot potato, pitting those willing to put public money into a new arena against those who'd be vigorously opposed.
On top of everything else, there's the question about how much appetite Hamilton has to go down this road again when it's been crushed by the league so many times already.
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Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Sports Lounge weeknights at 9 on 900CHML.