After June 30th, the end of the Nashville Predators could be near. That's how long the NHL has to approve a deal that will sell the team to Jim Balsillie, inventor of the blackberry device. The rich mogul has wanted a team for a long time now. He had tried to secure the bidding rights for the Pittsburgh Penguins after the Isle of Capri casino deal fell through. It wasn't until Pens owner Mario Lemieux found out first hand that Balsillie intended to move the team for profit that Lemieux refused the sale. Now the Penguins have an agreement with the city for a new arena to keep them around.
But things aren't that simple in Nashville. The Penguins are a beloved team with history and championships, including two of the greatest modern day players in their past with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Not to mention the possibly next greatest player in the making, Sidney Crosby. Nashville however, isn't quite as lucky. The team is young, created in 1998 as one of the first teams to be a part of the last NHL expansion effort. While some questioned the expansion of the early 1990s, almost all of those teams have garnered success at one point or another. In fact, the Senators, Ducks, Panthers, and Lightning, all created in either 92 or 93 have all seen the Stanley Cup Finals. The last expansion includes the Preds, Blue Jackets, and Thrashers, teams that are still a little young to pull off much but show some promise.
It takes time to build a fan base, especially in an area where hockey is not a top sport. Columbus fans were drawn like flies to the game and even though they've had a terrible history, the fans still come. Nashville isn't so lucky. The draw is much harder, but worse is the inability to get local businesses to buy luxury boxes, something a team thrives on. At the least, recent history has shown the team has great promise. They made the playoffs last year, only to be ousted in the first round in 5 games, due to losing their #1 goalie Tomas Vokoun. This year, became one of the best teams in the NHL, going so far as to add 2 time cup winner Peter Forsberg to the mix. However, they once again suffered a 1st round exit at the hands of the Sharks, again in 5 games. The season before the lockout, they managed to make it to six games before the Red Wings took them out in the first round.
But without a strong enough fan base and luxury boxes selling, the team is in real danger. The team is preparing to be sold and while other teams might be in worse situations, such as the Blackhawks not even showing home games on TV and still drawing poorly, Balsillie is the x-factor. He has such a strong desire to move a team, he made a deal with Hamilton, Ontario to promise a relocated team there. All the pieces are fitting together rather quickly. The 2007-2008 season could be the last for the Predators in Nashville.
If this all happens, you may ask why Hamilton? Well they would certainly support a team if given it, though it's hard to say if the money would be strong enough. They are equidistant from Buffalo, NY and Toronto, Ontario, meaning they are in a hockey hotbed area...but it also means trying to compete with the #1 hockey town in NA: Toronto. It would also mean a realignment of both divisions and the conferences. The Western Conference is strange enough as it is with teams, losing Nashville would only complicate things more. Moreover, it's all about the fans, and those that have supported this team for nearly 10 years may lose out on everything they cared about.
Moving a team is never easy or a popular thing to do. Balsillie buying a team with the sole reason being to try to make money by moving them is just a dastardly thing to do to a fan base. Especially one that, while somewhat lacking, is still taking its time to grow. A team that is flourishing well, and has made the playoffs for the last 3 straight years, regardless of outcome. The question is, will Nashville and its people fight hard enough to keep them, or will we see the inevitable creation of a 7th Canadian team? Only time can tell, and frankly, it's not on the side of the Predators.
With any luck, I hope to see the Nashville Predators and their fans at the red line, for a long time to come.