Gary Bettman Needs to Negotiate, Not Litigate, Coyotes Situation

Joe MacDonaldAnalyst IMay 28, 2009

MONTREAL - JANUARY 24:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at the NHL Board of Governors Meeting during the 2009 NHL All-Star weekend on January 24, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Sometimes swallowing your pride and making a good, long term decision is the hardest thing to do.  It's never easy to admit you've been out maneuvered, especially if you have a unhealthy level of personal dislike for your opponent.

That's the situation Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League is currently facing with the ongoing saga of the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Commissioner does not like Jim Balsillie, and resents the way he's attempting to come in through the back door of the NHL ownership fortress after a couple of failed attempts of entering through the main entrance. 

Bettman has made it his personal mission to make sure the brash tech billionaire never gets membership in the exclusive club he directs, a club where knowing the right people and cultivating the right friendships seems to be a lot more important than actually having the financial resources and business acumen required to run a successful franchise.

The Commissioner and his advisers are rightly concerned about the precedent this bankruptcy proceeding could create and are worried that a ruling that allows Mr. Balsillie to move the Coyotes to Hamilton would permanently  undermine the league's ability to determine who owns their franchises and where those franchises are located.

The other major sports leagues share Bettman's concern and have filed briefs with the bankruptcy court supporting the NHL's position. 

So, obviously, the NHL understands at lot more is at stake here than a failing franchise moving to a more hockey-friendly market.  The very integrity of the league's rules, bi-laws and constitution are at stake.

Hopefully, at least one person in the league office sees this and is advising a negotiated settlement between the National Hockey League and the Research in Motion CEO.  This is simply a fight the NHL cannot afford to lose, and it would be much better for the Commissioner to swallow his enormous pride and do what's right for the game, the fans and the league.

While he may not be Gary's first choice as a dinner companion, Jim Balsillie has the passion, smarts and, most importantly, the cash to make a great owner.  Hamilton will be a successful location for an NHL franchise, while there is little or no hope the club will ever be successful in the Arizona desert.

The smart move would be for the National Hockey League to give Balsillie his team, before the courts make them and their whole organizational structure is compromised.  Even if they think there's only a 25 percent chance the courts will rule against the NHL, is it really worth the risk. And if the odds are even closer to 50-50 or worse, it's the league's obligation to the other owners to settle this thing before a bankruptcy court judge changes their business forever.

The question is whether Gary Bettman is a big enough man to concede defeat and withdraw the troops before the collateral damage is greater than the potential benefits of winning the battle.