After BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie’s latest attempt to purchase an NHL franchise – and the league’s continued reticence to welcome him with open arms – I felt compelled to issue a plea to league commissioner Gary Bettman.
All this Jim Balsillie business has me worried about you.
One week, you’re making public statements about the NHL “fixing” the troubled Phoenix Coyotes and keeping the team in Arizona; a week later, owner Jerry Moyes does an end-run around you and drops a double-whammy that, in the opinion of some, will allow Balsillie to purchase and relocate the team to Southern Ontario as soon as lawyers and logistics permit.
Whammy No. 1 was Balsillie’s $212.5 million offer for the Coyotes franchise. That’s approximately $212.5 million more than anybody else publicly announced they would fork over for the rights to the league’s biggest money-bleeding entity.
But Whammy No. 2 – the team filing for bankruptcy protection at the same time the sale was announced – was the far more devastating boot to your league’s soft and special anatomical regions.
I’m sure I needn’t tell you, Gary, that when Moyes and Balsillie asked a bankruptcy judge to decide who gets to own the Yotes, they were really requesting that you and the rest of the NHL’s braintrust kindly stay the hell out of their way.
Moyes obviously isn’t interested in playing the Nashville Predators/Minnesota Wild ownership shell game that you got Craig Leipold to play. All Moyes is concerned with – and more than likely, all the bankruptcy judge will focus on – is recouping as much money out of the Phoenix money pit as possible and satisfying the organization’s numerous creditors.
Like I said, this makes me worried about you and the happy faces you paint on virtually every aspect of your operation. I mean, if Moyes is willing to abandon ownership solidarity for a lousy couple hundred million or so, what’s to stop the next desperate NHL team owner (cough-Charles-cough-Wang-cough) from looking out for his personal interests and depositing your best-laid plans into the nearest recycling receptacle?
And Gary, let’s for argument’s sake say you discover a way to shut Balsillie out of the owner’s club and keep the team in Phoenix. The next time he attempts to drastically increase franchise values by wildly overpaying for another team – and three purchase attempts in three years should tell you how assured a fourth bid from him will be – are you really going to stand there with a straight face and deny him entry yet again?
That type of stubborn, prideful reaction will look uglier and uglier every time you trot it out.
You’ve won two consecutive battles with him, but Balsillie has his eye on the longer war – and as his past business practices demonstrate, he’s perfectly content to let a battery of high-priced attorneys hammer out the ultimate win for him.
In one respect, he’s Muhammad Ali and you’re George Foreman, rumbling for your legacies in a more manicured jungle: one is landing most of the blows early in the fight; the other is bruised and swollen, but patient and prepared for a prime opportunity to pounce and pound on a weakened, winded opponent.
I’ve written some critical things about you over the years, Gary. However, I don’t believe you’re a bad man who can’t abide more NHL teams in Canada.
Nevertheless, the longer the Balsillie saga drags on, the more you help build his myth, the more you cast him as Robin Hood and yourself as Nottingham’s sheriff.
Regardless of how often you turn him away, he won’t recede from your view. Rather, he will return and return until you relent – or until a judge forces you to.
Gary, do yourself and your league a favor. Let Jim Balsillie have his team in Southern Ontario.
You likely won’t be hailed as a hero, but (a) rightly or wrongly, that dog left the hunt for you years ago; and (b) at least you’ll no longer be regarded as an impediment to your customers’ collective will.
You’ve swung a big club for a long while, Mr. Commissioner. But you can only flail away at so many high-stakes games of whack-a-mole before the mole and the holes win a game of their own.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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