02/09/2012 12:37 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian NHL Team Expansion: Canada Could Support Nine Franchises, Report Says

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TORONTO - Is it time to Make it Nine?

Researchers behind a new Conference Board of Canada report believe it is.

The report from the Ottawa-based think tank concluded that the country could sustain as many as nine NHL franchises. The briefing, co-authored by Glen Hodgson and Mario Lefebvre, is the latest in an extensive project examining the viability of pro sports in Canada.

"The fact that we could support nine hockey teams is an incredible testament to how much we love hockey," Lefebvre said Thursday in an interview. "We are one-tenth the size, give or take, of the U.S. population. They don't have 90 baseball teams, they don't have 90 basketball teams.

"They have 30."

Quebec City and Hamilton are the most suitable cities for the league to look at placing a franchise, according to the report.

The researchers used four "pillars" while conducting their analysis — population size, market wealth, corporate presence and the level playing field created by a Canadian dollar that is at par with its U.S. counterpart. They ruled out any area with a population lower than 750,000.

"We've had questions about Halifax and Saskatoon and Regina," said Lefebvre. "And no (they won't work), we're getting into too small of markets there to have teams survive."

Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday the league "would have no reason to know one way or the other" if the findings of the report were accurate.

Seven of the league's 30 franchises are currently based in Canada, with the Winnipeg Jets becoming the most recent to join the fold after a move from Atlanta in the off-season. Many view Quebec City as a possible landing place for another struggling team, potentially the Phoenix Coyotes, which are currently being run by the league for a third season.

Lefebvre did offer some caution about Winnipeg, Quebec and Hamilton — markets he views as being at the lower limit of the threshold needed to support a team

"These are markets that are going to need dedicated ownership," he said. "You're going to need an owner that is not going to pack the bags the first time that they hit an annual loss. In all likelihood, it could happen.

"We'll need dedication — someone that's not there for a quick asset flip."

The findings of the report support the belief put forward by Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Research in Motion, when he attempted to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy in 2009. At the time, he launched a "Make it Seven" campaign — the Jets had yet to be reborn — while claiming that Canada could support more teams.

Even though Balsillie's bid was unsuccessful, the report suggests his premise was sound.

Winnipeg's return to the league has been a smashing success. A spirited season-ticket drive virtually guaranteed sellouts at the MTS Centre for five years and the building has become one of the toughest places for visiting teams to play.

Lefebvre believes Quebec could make a similarly strong return given the chance. While acknowledging that staff would have to work hard to sell luxury boxes in a city with a small corporate base, he cited an improved economy as a reason why the reincarnated Nordiques could work.

"Our dollar is not going back to 62 cents anytime soon — it's not even going back to the 70s or 80s," said Lefebvre. "Our country is in a very enviable position around the world. Our fiscal house is in order. ... Our commodities are in incredibly high demand.

"We're an economy that is creating jobs so we're on solid footing and this dollar is not about to drop drastically on us."

The report also concluded that "getting and keeping" a second team in Toronto would be difficult. Reports surfaced in November about a group looking to build a NHL-sized arena in the suburb of Markham, but Lefebvre believes that area is too small to support its own franchise.

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