When I read that Jerry Reinsdorf had finally pulled his inadequate bid for the Phoenix Coyotes from the table, my initial reaction was to laugh my head off.
The saviour of the NHL pulls out, unable to get the massive concessions that he knew he would have to have from the city of Glendale in order to make hockey work in Phoenix, leaving the NHL to do its own dirty work.
It was a forlorn straw the NHL clung to to begin with, and now that it is gone Gary Bettman's only solution is a war to the death.
Anyone but Balsillie. Anything except a profitable market in Hamilton.
The NHL now plans to submit its own bid and, after getting control of the Coyotes, plans to sell them to any bidder who is sucker enough to keep them in Phoenix.
In spite of all the evidence, in spite of the City of Glendale telling Reinsdorf that "We don't want hockey at any price," the NHL will not admit defeat and sign a peace treaty with Balsillie.
The massive personal hatred, the alliance between American owners who want to make hockey an American game with a rich American television contract, and the Canadian owners who want to preserve their monopolies on markets and Canadian television money, all won't allow it.
Better to continue an endless war in which necessary resources are needlessly wasted than find a compromise.
That's the NHL way under Bettman who has already suffered a damaging loss of face by losing an entire season, the only "big four" sport to do so.
First let's clear up one myth. If the NHL wants to operate the team in Phoenix, it's for good, not for some short period that Bettman and the hard-line owners are trying to force on some of their reluctant colleagues.
There are no sucker owners to be found who will keep the team in Phoenix. If there were, they would have made a bid for the Coyotes on Sept. 10. They only exist in the anyone-but-Balsillie NHL's imagination.
The Coyotes lost $60 million last year. Given the damaging events of this summer, they figure to lose a lot more by the end of next season.
Does the NHL and its owners really want to lose money like that?
The statesman approach would be to end this conflict, discuss peace terms, and begin to heal wounds. It's not the end of the world or the worst calamity in history if Balsillie gets the team.
Let's suppose that Balsillie is awarded the team. Look at the ridiculous situation the NHL will be in:
A. The owners will have to work with Balsillie. By offering him peace terms now, they can put this whole mess behind them and get on and develop the league to get the goals they seek. If they don't, they will have a maverick owner who will operate by himself on his own terms.
B. What will the NHL tell the people of Hamilton? That they aren't wanted? That they aren't good enough to have NHL hockey? The Hamilton market encompasses more than its 700,000 residents.
There is already damage on this front and people are beginning to think of some form of retaliation. Who knows what the fallout would be? And one of the sufferers could be the Toronto Maple Leafs, so intent on preserving their southern Ontario monopoly.
C. Bettman will have to go. He was the up-front leader of the anti-Balsillie stance. If he offers terms, he can save his position.
D. Phoenix isn't the only "Canadian Crisis." There is potential disaster in Nashville, Florida, and Atlanta. Meanwhile, Quebec has finally found a principal investor, Quebecor, and Hartford's mayor has said he will support an attempt to build a new arena and get the Whalers back.
If these two cities get their acts together on investors and new arenas, they are going to come Thrasher/Predator/Panther hunting. If these franchises or others explode, what's the NHL going to do? Treat Quebec and Hartford the way they treated Balsillie?
Let's look at some of the players now caught between a rock and a hard place:
1. Gary Bettman
His job could be on the line. Enough said.
2. Ontario Teachers Pension Fund (Majority owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs)
Knowing some teachers and how they think, this is a group that has fits if even one penny is mismanaged. Now they must either share their market or risk losing big bucks by following Bettman and keeping alive a franchise that lost $60 million last year.
How long are they prepared to do that?
3. SOF Judas Investments
You accepted a valentine from Reinsdorf while you wore Balsillie's engagement ring. Get down on your knees and beg him to take you back.
Their owner claims that they can't survive if Hamilton gets the team. Cut the crap, take the compensation money, and learn to market in northwest New York State which has a market of three to four million people instead of the lazy way you do it now.
5. The Five Other Canadian Teams
You know very well that there's enough Canadian television money to add more Canadian teams. There used to be eight Canadian teams and you didn't complain so you can certainly live with seven teams and eight again if Quebec comes back too.
And if you're dissatisfied with your TV revenue, learn to cut better deals.
6. Hard Line American Owners
If you are upset because the shift of one American team to Canada will damage a potential American TV contract (which you've never come close to getting no matter how many American franchises there are), the solution is to expand the league in the United States again.
And put the new teams in markets where hockey matters, like Hartford, Portland, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Then you might get the TV contract you desperately want.
7. The City of Glendale and Phoenix Taxpayers
You've said you don't want hockey at any price. It's just that the NHL doesn't understand plain English. You won't deal with Reinsdorf. Cut a deal with Balsillie if you want to salvage something.
In the painting above, Lee knew when it was time to stop wasting lives and resources and save what could be saved. The NHL can do the same or they can fight and die like Montcalm at Quebec.
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