Will the USA and Canada Go to War over Wayne Gretzky and the Coyotes?

Martin AverySenior Writer IMay 9, 2009


BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie says he wants to bring the Winnipeg Jets and Wayne Gretzky back to Canada. His fight for the Phoenix Coyotes and his desire to relocate them in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, looks like it is turning into an international incident.

Will Canada and the USA go to war over Gretzky and the Coyotes? I don't think so!

The battle over the Phoenix Coyotes is escalating quickly. Battle lines were drawn in separate court filings, as the NHL contends the team owner cut illegitimate deal with Balsillie.

It started with BlackBerry billionaire Jim Basillie's deal with the team's owner, Jerry Moyes, to buy the bankrupt team and move them out of the Arizona desert into a hockey hot-bed in Hamilton.

Now the Phoenix Coyotes are ready to sue the NHL because the league will not let Moyes sell the team to Balsillie, according to the Republic/Phoenix Gazette. The Coyotes are prepared to sue, saying the NHL is breaking state and federal anti-trust laws.

Craig Harris, writing in the Arizona Republic, reported that as part of the team's bankruptcy filing, the Coyotes sued the NHL and alleged the league has engaged in a "conspiracy" to unlawfully attempt to take control of the franchise and prevent the sale to Balsillie.

Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner, said league rules that give team owners the right to approve a sale and relocation are lawful and he said he expects the league's bylaws to be upheld in court, according to Harris.

Moyes, who has invested more than $300 million in the money-losing franchise, sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday and agreed to sell the team to Balsillie for $212.5 million.

The suit against the NHL alleges Phoenix is not a viable hockey market, and that the Coyotes, after a dozen years in the desert, have one of the worst home attendance records and have failed to build a large fan base.

The lawyers traded arguments in court and the battle lines became more clear.

Mr. Balsillie and the Coyotes argue:

1. the NHL has no hope in Phoenix and

2. depriving hockey fans in Ontario while forcing an owner to remain in Arizona makes no sense.

NHL rules forbid a club from moving into another club's home territory, defined as an 80-kilometre radius, without permission.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says he has a deal for the Coyotes with Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox baseball team and Chicago Bulls basketball team.

"In the final analysis, what we do is all about, really, our fans," Bettman said on his weekly radio show. "Our fans play an essential role in all the decisions that we make. You support our clubs and we have a commitment to you. We don't run out on our fans when issues arise with our clubs."

The response to that claim was fast and furious from north of the American border.

"Where was Bettman for fans in Quebec City and Winnipeg?" asked Pat Hickey on Canada.com.

Fans of the Quebec Nordiques supported their team for years and then watched the team move to Colorado and win the Stanley Cup.

The Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes. The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas to become the Stars.

Fans of the Hartford Whalers still resent the Carolina Hurricanes.

"Enough Bettman bull," said Ted Wyman in the Winnipeg Sun.

"Potential owner Jim Balsillie's motives appear to be all about making NHL hockey more accessible to more hockey fans. If he is thwarted in his quest yet again, Mr. Balsillie can still win: He would make an excellent NHL commissioner," wrote Jean Mills, in the Globe and Mail.

"Canadian fans deserve Coyotes," wrote Michael Den Tandt in the London Free Press.

"NHL acting like 'illegal cartel,'" Paul Waldie and David Shoalts, wrote in the Globe.

The suit also takes aim at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, alleging it has colluded with the league for years to preserve "market power" in the Greater Toronto Area, according to Waldie and Shoalts. 

The suit was just the latest move in a series of escalating attacks by both sides.

Balsillie met with officials in Hamilton and then issued a statement saying the fight is "about the passion Canadians feel for the game of hockey and a chance to provide those Canadian fans with the opportunity to support a seventh NHL team."

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The Prime Minister of Canada has been brought into the battle, being quoted saying, “I’d love another NHL team in Canada...particularly southern Ontario...”

Several politicians also came out in favour of adding another team to Ontario, including Toronto Mayor David Miller as well as the mayor of Hamilton.

The NHL argued Balsillie and Moyes cut a secret deal that has no legitimacy.

"The Coyotes story has become the stick that has stirred the hornet's nest," Damian Cox opined in the Toronto Star. "The NHL's unwillingness to seriously investigate the concept of a second team in southern Ontario or explain its antipathy to the concept has resulted in a groundswell of public opinion against the Bettman administration."
"I'm rooting for Jim Balsillie in his current feud with Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League," Pat Hickey wrote from Montreal. "It's time to make it seven, and while we're at it can we find someone to bring the NHL back to where it belongs in Quebec and Winnipeg?"