The NHL vs. Jim Balsillie: The Battle for the Coyotes

Hentley Small@@JesusNoirCorrespondent IJune 16, 2009

The ruling came down from Judge Redfield T. Baum Monday that Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie will not be allowed to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy court in order to move them to Hamilton, Ontario.

The Blackberry maker has fought hard to get into the National Hockey League fraternity, this being his third attempt at purchasing a team. Again, he was turned away at the door of this exclusive club.

We’re not sure if Balsillie would have been willing to pay the potential $100 million in relocation fees on top of the $212.5 million he offered for the team, but we do suspect that this will not be his last kick at the can.

He is determined to bring another team to southern Ontario, and a man of his financial means should eventually get it done.

However, his argument of serving an unserved market is kind of bogus. Hamilton hockey fans have two teams within an hour of them. Most Canadian cities cannot boast as much. While the Buffalo Sabres are obviously across the border, it’s not hard to get to and tickets are available.

Moving the Coyotes to the mid-point between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Sabres could have potentially caused territorial concerns. It wouldn’t affect the Leafs, as their ticket waiting list wraps around the equator, but it would reduce Buffalo's fan base. There would need to be financial restitution for both teams just out of principle, adding to the cost for Balsillie.

However, the NHL has recently indicated they would like to have a second team in the Greater Toronto Area. Since expansion isn’t on the agenda, this could have been the perfect opportunity to bring in a mega-rich owner with an obvious passion for the game.

It was also a legitimate chance to exit a situation that isn’t working, but the league is very stringent on their policy, as they should be.

It would be a dangerous precedent for all of North American sports to allow any potential owner to just buy a team and move it as he or she feels. If they don’t have to respect the process and the rules of ownership, nor the other owners and the league, why would they?

For a guy so successful in the Blackberry business, Balsillie is so inept in the business of hockey. When he attempted to purchase the Nashville Predators, he was selling season tickets in Hamilton before he even had the team, despite the lip service that he was still trying to keep the team in Nashville.

That hypocrisy angered the NHL, and the deal fell through.

No matter how fat your wallet is, you can’t just do whatever you want. Balsillie seems to think that he is different, but owning a team is not like owning a television.

You can’t just move it wherever you want because you think it will look better over here. The league is not his house. When Balsillie is in someone else’s house, he should wipe his feet and respect the rules, or get thrown out on his wallet.

Canada is enjoying a particularly strong market for hockey right now, but think back some years to when Ottawa, Edmonton, and Vancouver were in various degrees of trouble.

Canadian fans wouldn’t have appreciated some American billionaire picking up those teams in the night and running off to Kansas City or Las Vegas. The short-sighted passion of hockey enthusiasts fails to see the potential for future disaster in circumventing the rules.

Better Canadian cities than Hamilton have proven they can’t support sports franchises. In the NHL, it was Quebec City and Winnipeg. In other sports, Canadian teams have faltered with regularity. Ottawa has lost the Canadian Football League’s Renegades and Rough Riders on multiple occasions. Same with Montreal, the Alouettes, and the Concordes, also in the CFL.

In Major League Baseball, Montreal has lost the Expos. Vancouver lost the Grizzlies in the NBA. So to think Hamilton, with a population around 500,000, is a long-term lock is extremely presumptuous. Better than Phoenix, yes. But if the NHL decides to explore relocation of this team at some point, it should be on their terms, after they do the appropriate research.

The only Canadian NHL teams that are, and have been, long-term locks are the Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens. This doesn’t prove that Canada should not get more major franchises, but it does prove the Great White North is far from infallible. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try again at the right time and in the right place.

So, round three goes to the National Hockey League—again. This is starting to look like a one-sided mismatch. If this were boxing, Balsillie’s corner might consider throwing in the towel. But he’s got the passion of a warrior, and eventually, he will have his round.


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