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Can the Maple Leafs prevent a team from moving to Southern Ontario?

An artist's rendition of the proposed new 20,000-seat arena in Markham, Ontario.

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An artist's rendition of the proposed new 20,000-seat arena in Markham, Ontario.

If NHL owner-in-waiting Graeme Roustan gets his 20,000-seat rink built in suburban Toronto (which he will) and the league someday sees fit to put a team there through relocation or expansion (which it will), you can bet there will be howls of protest from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And it could get very litigious. And ugly.

The Leafs have long been of the opinion that no team can relocate to another’s geographical territory without written consent from the team affected, effectively giving them a veto over any team moving into the 50-mile radius surrounding the Air Canada Centre.

The league, meanwhile, contends it has the right to place an NHL franchise wherever it sees fit and if that falls into the territory of the Leafs or any other team, they’ll essentially have to suck it up and accept it.

If you look at the NHL’s own constitution, the Leafs appear to have an ironclad case. But the NHL, bolstered by the Canadian Competition Bureau that supports the league, is just as adamant it stands on solid ground.

“Yes, there are superseding league rules that apply,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email in response to whether or not there are by-laws that usurp the constitutional provisions that govern territorial rights.

According to the league’s constitution, those territorial rights could not be clearer. In fact, Section 4.3 of the league’s constitution states that, “No other member of the League shall be permitted to play games (except regularly scheduled League games with the home club) in the home territory of a member without the latter member’s consent. No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member, without the written consent of such member.”

Preceding that section, the constitution states that, “Any admission of new members with franchises to operate in any additional cities or boroughs shall be subject to the provisions of Section 4.3.” And it goes on to define a home territory as follows: “Home territory with respect to any member, means each member club shall have exclusive territorial rights in the city in which it is located and within 50 miles of that city’s corporate limits.”

Reading that, you can certainly see why the Leafs think they have a case here. And regardless of what you think of the massive conglomerate that is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, any rational human being should be able to appreciate why the Leafs would so jealously guard their territory and go to any lengths necessary to keep it all to themselves. Of course the Leafs sell out every game and will continue to do so with a team in the suburbs, but this goes way beyond having bums in the seats. It speaks to corporate sponsorship, merchandising, digital media rights and all the other revenue streams that have made the Maple Leafs the richest team in the league.

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Let’s put it this way. A couple of years ago, the Leafs blocked a London, Ont., cable television station from broadcasting a pre-season game that didn’t involve the Leafs because it infringed on their broadcasting territory. Imagine how they would react if another team tried to take a piece of the action.

To be sure, both the league and the Leafs would have bulldog litigators confident of winning. But the league has privately told people for years that it feels it is on very solid ground on this one. And it was backed up by the Canadian Competition Bureau in 2008 who confirmed the NHL’s position when Jim Balsillie tried to purchase the Nashville Predators.

But in what it called a technical backgrounder to explain its ruling, the competition bureau wrote, “Readers should exercise caution in interpreting the Bureau’s assessment. Enforcement decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and the conclusions discussed in this backgrounder are specific to the present matter and are not binding on the Commissioner of Competition.”

Does that mean the competition bureau would have to look at the territorial issue again and perhaps make a different ruling based on the circumstances of this case? Or has the precedent already been set?

During the bankruptcy proceedings for the Phoenix Coyotes two summers ago, a letter was produced from the Leafs to the NHL dated Nov. 29, 2006 stating it believes a unanimous vote, not simply a majority vote, would be required to move a team into their territory. Daly later responded by saying all that meant was the Leafs interpreted the constitution differently than the league did.

“Just because we don’t have a team (in Toronto) or we didn’t agree to Jim Balsillie hijacking a team in Phoenix and moving it into Hamilton, that means the Leafs have a veto? Two plus two doesn’t equal three,” Daly said later that year. But he was just getting warmed up. He went on to say, “the whole concept that someone has a veto is just plain wrong. It’s made up. It’s a falsification of the facts.”

So where does this leave us? Well, when the league ultimately does decide to put a team in the Greater Toronto Area, it will be in for a fight from its most powerful member.

Let the games begin.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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