The first time Jim Balsillie tried to buy an NHL team, Gary Bettman arbitrarily changed the rules to make the prospect of purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins so unpalatable Balsillie had no choice but to walk away.
The second time Balsillie made an attempt to gain entrance into the board of governors annual croquet match, Bettman convinced the owner of the Nashville Predators to take far less money than Balsillie was offering and found a landing place for Predators owner Craig Leipold in Minnesota, where the team sells out every game and keeps track of profits, not losses.
Not exactly sure what Bettman has up his sleeve on Balsillie’s third attempt to buy an NHL team and move it to southern Ontario, but there is one thing about which we should be certain when it comes to Bettman and his attempt to block the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Balsillie: It would be folly to underestimate Bettman’s ability to take on and defeat Balsillie once again.
It will be very interesting to see how this chess match between two of the most powerful men in hockey plays out. On one side you have Balsillie, who has seemingly unlimited resources, an insatiable hunger and passion for an NHL team and the support of an entire country and the NHL Players’ Association behind him. Who knows, he may even have the strength of a favorable ruling from a bankruptcy judge in the near future.
On the other side you have Bettman, who basically has the NHL shield on his side. On the surface, it doesn’t look like much of a fair fight. But that, again, would be underestimating the commissioner and his ability to maneuver and work the back rooms with the best of them.
Some people will try to pit this as either Bettman or Balsillie and there is no doubt that is indeed the case. Others will try to use this situation as an acid test of Bettman’s leadership and control over the board of governors. Some will speculate he will lose that support if he doesn’t allow the Coyotes to go from being a team that sucks on the teat of NHL revenue sharing to one that contributes to the financial well being of the league.
First, unless a lot of people are reading the tea leaves very inaccurately, Bettman continues to have very good standing with the majority of the members of the board of governors. Say what you want about Bettman’s tenure as the league’s top man, but you cannot argue he has not delivered when it comes to meeting the wants of the team owners.
Bettman has done some damaging things to the game, but he has also made strides no one in his chair has ever made before. Revenues have skyrocketed under Bettman’s stewardship and he has brought a sense of professionalism to the league’s head office that it lacked prior to his arrival. He delivered the owners a collective bargaining agreement that included cost certainty in the form of a salary cap, as flawed as the document is for almost everyone involved.
(On that note, can anyone point out one team in the NHL that was in need of the new CBA and is in better shape now than it was before the lockout directly because of the agreement? Anyone? Anyone?)
What should also not be underplayed is the fact there are a number of financially struggling teams that want no part of having another revenue-generating team in the fold.
That’s because if the Coyotes moved to southern Ontario, they would become a revenue producer. That would, in turn, increase league-wide revenues and have an upward effect on the salary floor. And while it would be great for the overall league revenues, it would do absolutely nothing for the have-not teams aside from increasing their costs of doing business.
All of which, of course, is another damning indictment of the CBA. If there were no salary floor, this wouldn’t be a problem.
And what nobody should forget is the commissioner has the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs on his side. It has been said in this corner many times and will be said again: this is all about the Maple Leafs and preserving their monopoly over the most fertile bed of hockey revenues on the planet.
The Leafs do not want to give up their monopoly and when you look at the situation objectively, why on earth would they? And just so you know, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Maple Leafs losing 18,000 fans who might choose to go to another arena to attend games. If that’s all it were about, there would be five NHL teams in the Greater Toronto Area.
This is all about preserving and continuing to monopolize all the ancillary revenues that come from owning a team, such as television, advertising and merchandising. The Leafs don’t want to give any of that up and they’ll do whatever it takes to continue to keep it.
And they’ll continue to have Bettman’s support and the support of their peers. That’s what makes Bettman so powerful and continues to give him the upper hand in these matters.
Does that mean Bettman will ultimately win? No, but it would be a mistake to underestimate him even with all these obstacles seemingly stacked against him.
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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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