Never say never.
Saskatchewan has long shown its ability to support a wide variety of sports. At the top of the heap is football’s Roughriders. According to the team’s most recent figures, it led the CFL in ticket sales at 30,357 per game during the 2018 season, bringing in revenue of $17.2 million. The province has also been a strong backer of the Saskatchewan Rush, a professional lacrosse team in the National Lacrosse League, that averages nearly 11,000 fans per home game in Saskatoon. Several major curling championships held throughout the province have also been successful over the years.
Some observers feel the province’s best chance to acquire an NHL team came in 1983 when “Wild” Bill Hunter, one of the founders of the WHA, had a deal in principle to move the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon, only to have it blocked by a 13-5 vote against by the board of governors.
Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, says there’s no question there are many thousands of hockey fans in the province.
“We have lots of hockey players at all levels, from little guys to the NHL and the Olympics,” he says.
“Could it work? Who knows? It would take deep pockets, a long-term commitment and probably a new facility. The dreamers need to be matched with the money people, because they’re not always the same people,” he says.
There are more than 20 Saskatchewan-born players currently in the NHL and there have been hundreds over the years, including one—Gordie Howe—who is considered by some to have been the greatest player the league has ever seen. Maybe you’ve heard of him?
Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has never been one to say anything to get people’s hopes up about expansion, relocation or anything else really, was asked prior to the Heritage Classic game at Mosaic Stadium about the chances of the NHL expanding into Saskatoon at some point in the future. He said the league’s top priority was getting the new team in Seattle settled before it begins play in the 2021-22 season.
“(Expansion to Saskatchewan) is something we’re not focused on right now. We’re going to get to 32 teams and, at least for the foreseeable future, hold at that number and then after that, who knows?” he says.
According to the Conference Board of Canada, it’s unlikely either of the province’s two biggest cities could support an NHL team soon unless they had an unprecedented population explosion. Alicia Macdonald, associate director for economic forecasting at the Ottawa-based think tank, said past research has indicated a population base of 800,000 is a prerequisite to a financially successful NHL team. (Winnipeg’s current population is 750,000, eight years after the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to become the Jets.)
“With a population of 322,568 in Saskatoon and 257,337 in Regina, both cities are currently too small to support an NHL franchise. Another factor weighing against the province is its relatively small number of head offices, which are an important indicator of corporate sponsorship opportunities,” she says. In 2017, Saskatchewan had 85 head offices, down from 94 in 2013. By comparison, Ontario has 1,090, Alberta has 388 and Manitoba has 197.
The Conference Board said the only likely solution is to give the province time to expand its population, so it has enough potential ticket purchasers to support a team. But even after one city cracks the 800,000-barrier, there would still be some challenges, including a modern arena capable of holding about 20,000 spectators plus corporate boxes and a plan to target the relatively few corporate sponsors for backing. “The reality in the sports world is you never say never,” McLellan says.