On the ice, this match-up would be easy to call. Research In Motion exec Jim Balsillie would skate circles around NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. But their battle is going to be played out in the courts and with the business elite that own NHL franchises. Whoever presents the most compelling case will win the dayand control of the sadsack Phoenix Coyotes. And in the backroom, Bettman is every bit the master player that Balsillie is.
Balsillie made the first move, presenting a US$212.5-million offer for the Coyotes that was included in the teams Chapter 11 filing. But Bettman was quick to strike back, stripping Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes of his authority over the team and publicly declaring Balsillie will not get his way. We fix the problems, Bettman said earlier this week. We don’t run out on cities. Of course, thats not even remotely true.
Bettman didnt care a whit when the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995 and the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 (oh the irony of that move if Balsillie gets his way). But its also true that the teams in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa would likely have folded or moved away without his help. Dont believe me? Lets ask Harley Hotchkiss, co-owner of the Calgary Flames.
If people are critical of Gary Bettman and I know lots of people are, theyd better remember that he probably kept the Flames, Oilers and Senators in business, says Hotchkiss. All the teams, including the American ones that were losing money themselves, coughed up money to support the Canadian teams through the Canadian currency assistance plan. Ill be forever grateful to those American teams for doing that and to Gary and his leadership team for doing that.
Today, all three of those teams are on relatively sound financial footing. The same cannot be said of the teams that Bettman has been championing in the southern U.S. Phoenix has the most public financial problems, but Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa and Florida are experiencing tough times, too. The sticking point for Bettman nowjust as it was in the mid-1990s when he allowed the Canadian teams to walk awayis that the NHL cannot get a decent American television deal without interest in the south. A major network is not going to shell out billions of dollars when one-third of the country is completely disinterested.
Yet Bettmans egoand its a big oneis tied directly to U.S. expansion. He will do everything in his power to stop any team from moving north for mere economic reasons or absence of fans. He would rather the league spend millions propping up franchises in areas that demonstrate little interest in hockey despite more than a decade of trying to build a fan base.
Balsillie has a large ego, too. While he often comes off as the good ole small-town Canadian boy that he is, hes every bit as determined to get hold of a team and move it to southern Ontario as Bettman is to block him. Hes tried twice and been blocked by Bettman. Now hes trying for a third time.
One troubling aspect of Balsillies power play is that theres no guarantee that southern Ontario would actually support a second team. There is interest, certainly, and the team would likely sell out the small confines of Hamiltons Copps Coliseum for the first couple of seasons at least. But professional hockey other than the Toronto Maple Leafs (and how professional they are is debatable) has not been a huge success in this neck of the woods. The Toronto Marliesfarm team of the Leafsattract crowds better measured in the hundreds, not thousands. And Hamiltons not a hotbed for the American Hockey League, either. Local fans just dont care about minor pro hockey.
But its often been said that Toronto is not a hockey town at all. Its a Maple Leafs town. The sports bars around the city are not crammed with people interested in watching good teams play playoff hockey. And the truth is that the Leafs are finally wearing out their welcome, too. Season tickets are still hard to get, but there are plenty to be had cheap on most scalping services, and there were plenty of empty seats at the two games I attended this year (not to mention a healthy contingent of fans of the opposing team). That attitude is not that much different in the suburbs.
The real question is whether there is enough corporate interest to support a third team in a province that is crumbling as its manufacturing engine gets crushed by globalization and the economic downturn. Balsillie seems certain there is, but until there actually is a team in Hamiltonor whereverwe wont actually know.
All of which makes the game being played between Bettman and Balsillie even more interesting to watch. Who will present the most compelling case to the bankruptcy court in Phoenix? Who will be able to convince NHL team owners that they have the best plan for their own economic interests?
Thousands of hockey fansmost of them in Canadaare waiting for the answer and the first battle will be played May 19 in a Phoenix courtroom where a judge could decide who currently controls the team: the NHL or Jerry Moyes. Game on.