Jim Balsillie: Two Quotes Tell the True Story

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIAugust 10, 2009

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 05:  Jim Balsillie Chairman and Co-CEO of Research In Motion and new owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins poses with his Blackberry in a press conference announcing the purchase of the team alongside Mario Lemieux after the first period at Mellon Arena on October 5, 2006 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

There was a short article in today's Toronto Sun telling how the NHL owners want Jim Balsillie's bid eliminated because they have already unanimously rejected him.

I have mentioned in numerous articles the NHL owner alliance between Canadian team owners who want to preserve their monopoly of TV money and their territorial rights, and American owners who want to make hockey one of the big-four sports in the United States, complete with a rich American TV contract.

There were two quotes in this article that show exactly how this thinking dominates the NHL, and why things have happened the way they have happened.  

They also show why Jim Balsillie has resorted to tactics that have embarrassed the league and increased the hostility towards him.

The first quote comes from a document that Balsillie filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court two days after the NHL vote.  This was about the impression he had of the Board of Governors during his only interview before them.

He said his interview was "a strong and rather hostile interrogation by persons whose minds appear to have been made up before the meeting began."

The other quote came from the NHL, in its 26 page motion to have Balsillie disqualified from bidding.  It accuses Balsillie and ousted owner Jerry Moyes of trying to force their way into the NHL via the "back door" of bankruptcy.

The filing says that,  "There is only a front door, and now it is unavailable to Mr. Balsillie."

The first quote implies that Balsillie faced a negative audience before he ever opened his mouth.  In other words, the NHL Board of Governors is not prepared to sanction a franchise transfer to Canada, no matter who is making the bid.

When Balsillie sensed this, he resorted to tactics that embarrassed the league by playing up its anti-Canadian attitude, notably by selling tickets before getting Nashville, and by forming MakeItSeven before getting Phoenix.  

What did he have to lose?  The Board was going to oppose him no matter what he did.

If Canadians had any doubt that an anti-Canadian attitude exists in the NHL, Balsillie's impression of the Board of Governors ought to remove all speculation.

And, as I have listed in previous articles, the league's history since 1967 amply illustrates this.  Except for the transfer of Atlanta to Calgary, and the admission of Ottawa at the expense of Hamilton, the NHL has opposed every effort to add more Canadian teams.

Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hamilton have all encountered NHL hostility.

The second quote implies that Balsillie's embarrassing actions have closed forever the door to his admission to the NHL.  

But the door was never, ever open:  Balsillie or any bidder for any American team that wants to shift it to Canada would automatically be guaranteed a hostile reaction.

The NHL's claim that Balsillie is an untrustworthy, unsavory character is laughable, considering the criminals that have graced the ranks of the Board of Governors.  It comes across like a little kid calling people names.

Anybody who proposes a franchise transfer to Canada automatically has "unsavory" character in the NHL's eyes.

So what should Balsillie do?

Before details of the bids leaked out, I wouldn't have given him a penny for his chances, but the other two bids are so laughable, in that they provide scarcely a penny for the creditors, that the judge may be forced to give him the Coyotes by default.

But I think it's best for everyone concerned, especially Balsillie, if he walks away from it.

Even if the judge awards him the team, that seems now likely, the NHL is probably devising some strategies to block his ownership, should the worst occur.

The smart thing for the NHL to do would be to come to terms with Balsille, take his money, and not waste any more time and resources on a needless fight.

Balsillie's transfer of one American franchise is hardly going to threaten the American owners' goal of getting a rich TV contract.  It's even more absurd when they are willing to give Jerry Reinsdorf an escape clause if he gets the team.

When Canada had eight teams instead of six, Canadian owners still made money by their TV deal.  Even if they move back to seven, they'll still make a profit, and this kind of conflict can be avoided in the future by negotiating Canadian TV contracts that pay more money if more Canadian teams are added.

The only outstanding issue is to provide suitable compensation for Toronto and Buffalo, and Balsillie has said he is willing to do this.

But the NHL is so paranoid, they are willing to engage in a fight to the death to preserve a franchise that has never made a cent since it landed in Phoenix.

I know Balsillie has his heart set on being an NHL owner, but does he really need this? Does he really want to be partners with a group of owners who hate his guts?

If he wants to be a sports owner, the CFL would welcome him with open arms, if he would add a tenth Canadian franchise.

And if he wants to be a hockey team owner, he would do better to start his own league like the WHA in the 1970's, only smarter.  One that could win a war with the NHL, or at least fight to a stalemate like the WHA did.

That was the way Canadian cities forced their way into the NHL.  Not through an open door...but with a gun to the NHL's head.


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