PHOENIX – They arrived separately, left separately and spent most of a day in the courtroom ignoring each other.
If it wasn’t for a call of nature, Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could have spent Wednesday without making contact.
Phoenix residents said a recent storm had caused a ‘drop’ in temperatures to around 40 degrees. Maybe it was the arrival of the two high-powered antagonists who are used to having their way that caused the sudden chill.
Balsillie made his first appearance in a U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Wednesday in his ongoing battle with the NHL to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton.
Bettman was also on hand to watch his team of lawyers argue before Judge Redfield T. Baum that since the league voted 26-0 to reject Balsillie as an owner, he should not be allowed to participate in a Sept. 10 auction for the team.
The two men were like puppet masters, pulling the strings on their lineup of high-priced legal help. Neither spoke in the courtroom but their very presence shouted volumes about how important winning this scrap is for each man.
Their animosity has grown clear in recent months. Balsillie has even filed a court document contending Bettman and “a number of owners have a personal grudge” against him.
The NHL, meanwhile, contends Balsillie is not playing by league rules. According to the NHL, Balsillie is trying to force entry to the league through “the bankruptcy side door.”
“There is only a front door, and it is now unavailable to Mr. Balsillie in accordance with the NHL’s constitution and bylaws,” the league argued in an earlier court filing.
Balsillie has looked to appeal directly to fans, signing them up to a website – even forging corporate sponsorships for his attempt to bring another franchise to Southern Ontario.
On Wednesday, the two wore the corporate armour of crisp, white shirts and expensive suits as they watched the proceedings. Even when Baum told the men in the courtroom they could remove their jackets due to the heat, Balsillie kept his on.
The two men sat several feet from each other in the courtroom but didn’t acknowledge each other. Their only real interaction reportedly came when they bumped into each other in the washroom. That resulted in a handshake.
Both paid careful attention to the proceedings. At times lawyers would lean over and whisper in their ears.
Bettman is normally a man who likes to give long answers that can sometimes leave a questioner scratching his head. But on the subject of Balsillie he leaves no doubt over his dislike.
The two have crossed swords in the past, when Balsillie attempted the purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.
“We knew that the trust issue had been breached in the Pittsburgh transaction and we knew he would have to overcome it if he was ever to be approved as an owner in Nashville,” Bettman said outside of court. “But it seems like things continued to spiral in the wrong direction.
“I think the will of the board in that regard, and the view of the owners in that regard, has been crystal clear.”
Balsillie elected not to toss verbal punches after the hearing. The man who earned millions making BlackBerries stuck to his message of simply wanting to bring the NHL to the hockey-starved fans of Hamilton.
“All we want is to be a bidder and to really serve the fans of the best, under-served hockey market in the world,” he said. “We want to make our bid on a level playing field. That’s all we’ve asked for.”
Balsillie has offered the buy the money-losing Coyotes for US$212.5-million, on the condition he can move them to Hamilton.
The NHL – which favours keeping the franchise in Phoenix for the time being – has bid US$140 million for the team.
While Balsillie and Bettman are household names in Canada they had some trouble being recognized by some members of the U.S. media.
When Bettman came out of the courthouse for a scrum, one radio reporter asked “Who are you?”
“I am Gary Bettman,” he replied with a smile. “And who are you?”
When Balsillie appeared, a TV cameraman shouted “Please identify yourself.”
Balsillie ignored him.
Wednesday’s court hearing was billed as a key round in Balsillie’s battle with the NHL. Since the judge reserved his decision, it means neither side landed a knockout blow.
Balsillie and Bettman will meet again.