Hamilton feels like a major-league town because it functions like one. True, it doesn't have a team in any of the four big professional sports leagues, but the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger Cats have been playing here since 1950, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame calls it home and the Tiger Cats' former home field at Ivor Wynne Stadium is being replaced by the $150 million Tim Hortons Field just in time for the city to host the Pan-Am Games in 2015.
The international sports community has recognized Hamilton since it hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1930, making the first time Canada hosted an international sporting event. Hamilton's Canadian sports legacy is well established, with eight Grey Cup victories, including the most recent in 1999. The absence of the other sports leagues, especially the NHL, continues to sting a bit. Especially with 19,000-seat Copps Coliseum lying in wait on Bay Street and York Boulevard.
That's all too big of a tease for a town with the NHL in its blood, but a troubled history with that league. From 1920 to 1925, Hamilton was home to the Hamilton Tigers. The Quebec Bulldogs moved into town in 1920 with the 1913 Stanley Cup to their credit. They never quite lived up to that lofty standard, though, and spent their first four years in Hamilton stinking on ice. When the 1924-25 season came around, the team finally put itself together and went on a run good enough to secure a playoff berth.
That's if they could get their players to actually play the game. On the train ride back from the last game of the season, the players pushed their general manager for an extra $200 a pop, arguing that the season had expanded from 24 to 30 games, but they didn't get a raise. Management balked, and the Tigers players went on strike. The playoffs went on without them, with Montreal winning the final but losing the Stanley Cup playoff to the Pacific Coast Hockey Association's Victoria Cougars. That marked the last time a non-NHL team won the Cup.
That also infuriated the NHL, which awarded a U.S. expansion franchise to bootlegger "Big Bill" Dwyer in 1925. The Tigers and their players were sold to Dwyer that year and became the New York Americans by the next season.
That's where Hamilton's NHL story ended until roughly 2006, when
Research In Motion
founder and Blackberry-bolstered millionaire Jim Balsillie entered the picture. Balsillie's biggest goal was to bring the NHL back to Hamilton, using Copps Coliseum as bait. He made his first attempt in 2006 when he bid on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were seeking a new arena at the time and were being wooed by both Balsillie and Kansas City. Balsillie withdrew the bid after the league wanted more control of the franchise. Balsillie withdrew his bid and the Penguins eventually got their new arena, a slew of new prospects and a Stanley Cup.
Balsillie resurfaced a year later when he announced a tentative deal to buy the Nashville Predators. That agreement turned out to be non-binding, and Balsillie had to go shopping yet again. Finally, in 2009, it looked as if he'd hit paydirt by making a $212.5 million bid for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes. But the NHL was so opposed to the move that it stepped in, prevented the Coyotes' owner from making business decisions and took control of the franchise itself. A judge prevented Balsillie from making another bid on the team, which was batted around like a hot potato until this year, when a new ownership group pledged $225 million, vowed to change the name to the Arizona Coyotes and promised to keep the team in the desert for at least five years -- avoiding a league plan that potentially would have moved the team to Seattle.
Meanwhile, Balsillie resigned as CEO of Research in Motion last year and left its board of directors a few months later. He hasn't made much noise about bringing a team back to Hamilton, and would have to get approval from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres even if he did. If Hamilton's NHL dreams aren't dead, they've at least been put on ice for the foreseeable future.