Ice Hockey: Ottawa Senators face embarrassing US move

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 10 January 2003 01:00

They have the second best record in the entire National Hockey League. They are held up as a model of how a small-market team should be managed. But that probably will not stop the Ottawa Senators going bankrupt and being moved to an American city, as many an illustrious Canadian franchise before them.

Canada's sensitivities about being absent-mindedly absorbed by its giant southern neighbour are well known: "Canada? What street is that on?" Al Capone once remarked. 'Hockey' in North America means the ice variety – and few indignities would be greater than for the capital of the country which regards itself as the game's spiritual home to lose its team to some torrid desert resort where the only ice is at self-serve soda fountains.

Precisely that fate befell the Winnipeg Jets a few years ago, who were relocated to Phoenix Arizona (average summer temperature 100F degrees plus). And in 1995 the Quebec Nordiques were bought by the US entertainment group Comsat, transferred to Denver, and renamed the Colorado Avalanche.

John Manley, the Finance Minister, has been trying to persuade a major Canadian bank to lead a rescue operation of the Senators but, if a "national solution" fails, a filing for bankruptcy protection is all but inevitable. That would hold creditors at bay and let them continue playing and paying players until the season ends in the spring.

Ottawa's problems are two-fold. One is the franchise's debt of up to C$400m (about £170m), stemming in large part from the team's Corel Centre home, where attendances have dropped with the economic slowdown in once-booming Ottawa.

But the biggest difficulty, and which has some worrying about the long-term future of Canada-based major league sports teams, is the weakness of the local dollar. Gate and advertising revenues are in Canadian dollars, but player salaries are linked to the US dollar, which is 50 per cent more valuable. Small wonder that only six Canadian NHL teams are left.

The off-rink turmoil "is not a distraction," the head coach Jacques Martin gamely insisted this week. "The success of the team has helped us get through these times." But the strain may have finally caught up on Wednesday, as Ottawa lost 6-4 to the Vancouver Canucks.

US teams are not immune to financial crisis either. The Buffalo Sabres have been under special NHL administration since June and could also file for bankruptcy. In 1998 the Pittsburgh Penguins were on their last legs, but Mario Lemieux put together a consortium to buy them out. Not only is Lemieux arguably the greatest player in history, he's also a Canadian.

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