In the business world, Jim Balsillie is the equivalent of hockey’s energy line player – determined, relentless, persistent.
And that isn’t going to change, even if a bankruptcy court judge rules that the BlackBerry boss can’t move the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton.
“I’m hard-pressed to see a case where I won’t carry on,” Balsillie said in an interview with The Canadian Press earlier this week. “But you take the facts that come forward and you react to them. Just like the Phoenix situation, that was a situation we reacted to. . . . Would another situation come up? I don’t know. I try to be thoughtful in the things I do and have no intention of proceeding cavalierly in anything I do. That’s not my nature.”
Judge Redfield T. Baum will preside over a hearing next Tuesday in Phoenix to determine whether or not the team can be moved. Whatever the decision, Balsillie says he’s not giving up.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation where I wouldn’t proceed,” he said. “It’s hard to think of a case where it wouldn’t be interesting.”
The co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion insists that he’s complied with the NHL’s rules and regulations from the very beginning.
He was actually approved to become an owner by the league’s board of governors after making an offer for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006. However, the deal fell apart over proposed clauses that would have prevented him from moving the team.
A year later it appeared that Balsillie was on the verge of acquiring the Nashville Predators – famously collecting ticket deposits for the “Hamilton Predators” – before owner Craig Leipold ended up selling the franchise to another group.
Denied but still determined, Balsillie took a different approach with his bid to land the Coyotes. He offered US$212.5 million the same day majority owner Jerry Moyes placed the team in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and made the sale conditional on a move to southern Ontario.
The NHL was caught by surprise.
“I spent five years looking for the front door in this process,” said Balsillie. “I wasn’t able to find a front door and I’m pretty capable of finding these things. I’m used to navigating through circumstances and working through it.
“I couldn’t find another way to get this on the agenda.”
The decision to bid for the Coyotes was made fast.
When Moyes filed for Chapter 11, commissioner Gary Bettman was en route to Phoenix with an offer from Jerry Reinsdorf that would have kept the team in Arizona. That bid was reportedly worth far less than the one registered by Balsillie.
“You saw the commissioner say that they were within 20 minutes of having some other plan to put to Mr. Moyes,” said Balsillie. “One can presume that he wasn’t too excited about that plan. So this all came about very quickly.”
Even though he’s been portrayed as a guy who is unwilling to play by the rules, Balsillie insists that isn’t the case. And he clearly believes that the board of governors will one day accept him into the club – although he wouldn’t comment on the nature of conversations he’s had with other NHL owners.
He believes that his proposal to relocate the Coyotes meets all of the standards set out by the league.
“My approach is to fully comply with all aspects of the league rules and bylaws – period,” he said. “And totally bring this forward on its merits – period. Nothing more, nothing less. I mean it’s really that simple.
“If you overthink it, you miss it. All we want is the NHL’s bylaws as they declare them to be applied fairly and transparently. All we want is our application, both to the courts and the league, to be assessed on its merits.”
It appears that he can at least count on getting that from Baum, a bankruptcy judge with a dry wit and a big decision on his hands.
He essentially has to determine whether upholding the NHL’s bylaws on relocation is more important than the interests of the Coyotes’ creditors – a ruling that could have wide-reaching affects on the other major North American sports leagues. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball all support the NHL’s claim that it alone has the right to decide where its franchises are based.
Balsillie is happy that an independent decision will be made on his bid for the Coyotes.
“For me this is great because it’s simple and transparent,” he said. “I’m unambiguous with my objectives here and I’m unambiguous with my offer. It’s a team that’s in bankruptcy, in a difficult situation, and I’m offering to fully comply with the league’s rules and bylaws to find a way out of it.”
A decision on the relocation issue will be made by Baum after the June 9 hearing.
One thing Balsillie and Bettman agree on is that the battle over the Coyotes has nothing to do with personal agendas. The two men have been characterized as staunch enemies
“It’s fun to make it about personalities but fundamentally it’s irrelevant,” said Balsillie.
Ultimately, this is a business decision. And Balsillie believes that having another NHL franchise in Canada will make for good business.
That isn’t something that can currently be said of the Coyotes.
“They’ll lose $45-odd million dollars this year, they’ve lost a couple hundred million or whatever in the past few years,” said Balsillie. “That (leaves) a lot of question about its viability. Do you think next year will be better for them? It’s hard to see it.
“Clearly, Hamilton is an incredibly vibrant hockey market. I think we’ve demonstrated that.”