Hockey night in Saudi Ara­bia

National Post (Latest Edition) - - IDEAS - Jerry Amer­nic Jerry Amer­nic is a Toronto writer. He is the au­thor of the nov­els The Last Wit­ness, and Qum­ran.

The Na­tional Hockey League is now ac­cept­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for new fran­chises, and while NHL Czar-Com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman says this doesn’t mean the league is ex­pand­ing, it’s no se­cret they have their eye on that hockey hot­bed of Las Ve­gas in the Ne­vada desert. This is a huge mis­take. Let me ex­plain.

For many years the U.S.-run league has missed the boat by not lo­cat­ing fran­chises where peo­ple know hockey. The NHL has only seven of 30 fran­chises in Canada; three of the five most valu­able fran­chises are Cana­dian, and ac­cord­ing to Forbes Mag­a­zine the 10 least valu­able fran­chises are all in the U.S. Forbes also says the league’s six most valu­able teams (Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Mon­treal Cana­di­ens, Chicago Black­hawks, Van­cou­ver Canucks and Bos­ton Bru­ins) con­trib­uted a whop­ping 76 per cent of league rev­enues in the 2013-14 sea­son. What sane per­son would run a busi­ness with 30 out­lets when 24 of them are duds?

The trou­ble with Las Ve­gas is that the NHL is look­ing at the wrong desert. It should be tar­get­ing the Ara­bian Desert. Namely Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia.

Riyadh is a bustling metropo­lis of six mil­lion. Just about ev­ery­one speaks English and in win­ter the tem­per­a­ture has been known to oc­ca­sion­ally hover around zero, which means peo­ple will be think­ing about hockey. Sure, at the other end of the scale it does get up to 50 de­grees C, but hell, they’re sup­posed to have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and that’s an out­door event with no air con­di­tion­ing. Be­sides, be­lieve it or not, right now the NHL has as many teams in south­ern U.S. states as it does in all of Canada — three in Cal­i­for­nia, two in Florida, and one each in Texas and Ari­zona. As long as the league doesn’t sched­ule any games dur­ing Ra­madan or when they’re hold­ing ex­e­cu­tions, ev­ery­thing should be fine with Riyadh.

But here’s the kicker. It will cost US$500 mil­lion for a new NHL fran­chise and there is a lot of money in Saudi Ara­bia. I re­al­ize the price of oil is down (largely due to the Saudis), but the place isn’t go­ing bank­rupt any time soon. So fi­nally we come to own­er­ship, and this is the No. 1 rea­son the NHL should be look­ing to Riyadh. Just con­sider the can­di­dates for gov- er­nor of an NHL team.

Prince Al­waleed Bin Talal Al­saud is worth $22 bil­lion. Sheik Ahmed bin Ab­dul­lah Al Juf­fali comes in at just un­der $20 bil­lion. Mo­hammed Al Amoudi may be a rel­a­tive pau­per at $9 bil­lion, and I re­al­ize he’s an oil guy and that might be a bit risky right now, but Su­laiman Al Ra­jhi is in bank­ing and his $8.5 bil­lion is noth­ing to sneeze at. Then we have Maan Al-Sanea, who’s into con­struc­tion and fi­nance and is worth over $8 bil­lion, not to men­tion real es­tate-and-ho­tel-guy Mo­hamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, who tips the scales at over $5 bil­lion, and Saleh Kamel who’s into all kinds of things and is worth a cool $5 bil­lion.

Okay, Kamel isn’t worth even a quar­ter what Sheikh Al Juf­fali is, but how many cur­rent NHL own­ers are worth $5 bil­lion? In fact, there are four. The own­ers of the Colorado Avalanche, San Jose Sharks, Los An­ge­les Kings and Win­nipeg Jets are all worth more than that, and it’s no co­in­ci­dence that none of those teams are mon­ey­mak­ers. This means those own­ers can han­dle the heat, and so can Saudi sheiks and busi­ness ty­coons.

I know we keep hear­ing about Saudi money fi­nanc­ing rad­i­cal Is­lamic groups, but even the NHL has had a whiff of scan­dal over the years. Clarence Camp­bell, pres­i­dent of the NHL from 1946-1977, was con­victed in the Sky Shops af­fair, but never went to pri­son. Alan Ea­gle­son, for­mer pres­i­dent of the NHL Play­ers Union, was con­victed of fraud and em­bez­zle­ment, and did go to pri­son.

Harold Bal­lard, long­time owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was con­victed on 47 charges of tax eva­sion and what have you and sen­tenced to nine years. He served three. Stafford Smythe, Bal­lard’s fel­low owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was also charged with in­come tax eva­sion, but man­aged to avoid jail. How? He died.

More re­cently, there is a long line of litany among NHL own­ers — more than in any other sport in North Amer­ica — who have been con­victed of con­spir­acy and fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud, se­cu­ri­ties fraud, and ly­ing to the Se­cu­ri­ties Ex­change Com­mis­sion. Some of them have done jail time.

Bot­tom line? Saudi Ara­bia is the place to go. A coun­try that doesn’t let women drive or vote and whose hu­man rights record is flawed would fit right in with these folks. Fan base? Hey, this is the NHL. Who needs a fan base?

I rest my case.

Fan base? This is the NHL here. Since when is a fan base im­por­tant when con­sid­er­ing an ex­pan­sion?

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