If the NHL is looking to expand its franchise to a desert, why not Saudi Arabia?

Published in National Post| July 10, 2015 | By Jerry Amernic


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 $500 million (U.S.) 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 governor of an NHL team.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud is worth $22 billion. Sheikh 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 money-makers. This means those owners can handle the heat, and so can Saudi sheikhs 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, long-time 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.

Jerry Amernic is a Toronto writer. He is the author of the novels The Last Witness, andQumran.