Thursday, May 07, 2009

If it ain't a mess, it'll do till the mess gets here

The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth - that error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
(H.L. Mencken)

I've had a few people email me for my take on the Leafs and the possible addition of a third NHL team into the Ontario market. I don't have much to add to the already extensive, and excellent coverage that's out there. I'd recommend you check out:

Bob McKenzie at TSN
James Mirtle - here, here and here
The Wall Street Journal
and the excellent Coyotes Blog, Five for Howling

To that great coverage, I'd add the following commentary:

Don't equate the NHL's rejection of Balsillie with the rejection of a seventh team in Canada.

Given the richness of the Southern Ontario market, an NHL team is all but certain to eventually call the region home. When the time comes to put a franchise in Preston, Hespeler or Fiddlesticks Ontario, rest assured the NHL will have their pick of prospective owners.

Don't equate the animosity and lack of popular support for Betteman with weakness.

The commish is one slippery, canny dude. He knows where his support lies and he knows what he has to do to stay in his chair. Betteman can't ever win in the court of public opinion, but I'd bet he'd shiv his own mother to make sure he wins where it matters - in a court of law.

Don't get hung up over vetoes and territorial rights.

Hockey's a business - everyone has their price: look no further than the Ducks, Devils and Islanders for indemnification precedents (and when the time comes, rest assured every team has aggressively litigious counsel standing by).

The shame of all this is that instead of talking about premiere hockey match-ups and really exciting playoff games, many hockey fans and the hockey media are debating chapter 11 vs. chapter 7 bankruptcies, talking about failed markets, and forgetting that no matter how this story ends, many hockey fans are going to be heartbroken.


  1. The problem with Bettman and the NHL is not that they are anti-Canada, it is that they are either too stubborn or too stupid to realize that hockey just doesn't melt people's butter in the warmer regions of the United States. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but in general Americans in warmer climes don't care. They are clearly not willing to spend the kind of time and money on hockey that the NHL needs them to spend in order for them to be financially successful.

  2. I want them to force the game down the throats of Americans. I want another owner to come in and lose money in Phoenix thereby costing all the owners money. Eventually they'll learn the folly of their ways.

  3. Yes, I have often been of the opinion that this league needs to fail spectacularly before it can get better. One bankruptcy every few years isn't good enough.

  4. Paul Steckley7:25 pm

    There are a few things that irk me about this story.

    1. The GTA belongs to the Leafs. Period. I don't want a team in Hamilton, Vaughan, Oshawa, or anywhere within easy driving distance of Toronto. This is my clear Leaf bias here but I want the GTA to remain staunchly blue and white territory.

    2. How successful will the Coyotes really be with Balsillie owning the team? The way he has attempted to pigheadedly strong-arm his way into NHL ownership only raises, in my mind, the spectre of owners like Harold Ballard, George Steinbrenner, and Al Davis. That kind of ownership does not historically breed success and stability. He will clearly be a very hands-on owner and as a Leaf fan I have seen first-hand over the past four decades how disastrous that is. Balsillie is obviously a good businessman but that doesn't equate to being a good franchise owner.

    3. Why is everyone so incensed and/or surprised by the NHL's, and in particular Bettman's, reaction? If you had your own business and an outsider suddenly showed up at your door, demanding a corner office with a window, would you ask what kind of wood the desk should be? Balsillie is like the kid that wasn't asked to the birthday party but somehow shows up asking for the biggest piece of cake anyway. The NHL has rules and a way of conducting business. Balsillie clearly thinks he's above anybody's rules but his own. Sorry, Jim, but just because you want to belong to our secret club doesn't mean we have to let you into the treehouse.

    4. Why is no one giving Bettman and the NHL credit for not bailing on Phoenix? Bettman was lauded for the way he helped salvage the Sens when they were experiencing severe financial difficulties, despite the fact that I'm sure more than a few American owners would prefer to have used that situation as an excuse to move it to a more prestigious American city. He's doing nothing different now than he did then but somehow now he's anti-Canadian and not good for hockey. You can't have it both ways. Either Bettman fights to keep all teams in their current cities if reasonably possible or he lets everyone move whenever they want, in which case the league would quickly become the laughingstock of professional sports.

    5. Mike made a very astute point in his article when he cautioned not to link the NHL's dislike of Balsillie's tactics with their desire for a seventh team in Canada. I particularly dislike Balsillie's website and the way he's tried to spin this dispute into a matter of Canadian national pride. Why are Canadian hockey fans so incensed that a billionaire can't purchase his latest toy? Balsillie is using these fans as pawns in his powerplay with the NHL and the 100,000 plus idiots that signed up for his site are following this meglomaniac like sheep following a blind shepherd over the cliff.

    6. Who's to say that Phoenix can't become a great hockey city if they have a successful team to generate interest and a following? Phoenix has not been a good team for many years. That lack of success wears on fans and makes it hard to sell tickets. But you only have to look at Anaheim to see how success can turn things around. At the beginning of this decade they were near the bottom in attendance figures. After a couple trips to the Finals and a Cup, they've increased their attendance figures to the point where their arena is at 98.9% capacity at home and an impressive 94.8% on the road. The Coyotes look to have the start of a good, young team that might blossom the way Chicago has recently into a strong performer. Give the fans in Phoenix something worth watching and then gauge their interest. If they don't support a team putting up 90+ points a season then I'll agree that they don't deserve a team. Until then, I'm not convinced.

  5. Furcifer and Pal Hal - We'll have to agree to disagree. I think it's a shame to wish failure on a sports franchise or hardship on any fan base, no matter how small.

  6. Paul - that's quite the entry and I agree with a number of your points, you need to get your own blog.

  7. Oh dear, where to begin. Let's go in order, shall we? This could take a while...

    1) I'm glad to hear that you are at least admitting your Leaf bias, not that I particularly understand it. I'm a Leaf fan myself, but I would love to have a team and their fans in the neighbourhood to hate. Why are some Leaf fans so insecure about having another team kid move onto the block? We're no longer Canada's team, at least not in the way we once were. Let's deal with it.

    2)It is pointless to speculate about what kind of owner Balsillie would be, and it certainly should not inform discussion over whether he should be allowed to bring one here or whether his tactics are right. If he ends up being a shitty owner, it'll be his team's and his fans' problem, but right now it's impossible to tell.

    3)I am incensed for the exact reason you accidentally mention: because Bettman is treating the NHL like it is his business. What you have to understand is that the NHL is a governing body and Bettman, as the leader of that body, is doing a terrible job. The NHL has rules? What rules? The ones that were arbitrarily changed at the 11th hour when Balsillie was trying to buy the Penguins in the 'acceptable' manner? I keep hearing mention of these rules, but I've never heard anyone mention exactly what they are. Balsillie wants an NHL franchise, ideally one that's in a failing hockey market so that he can move it to his home region, which happens to be an excellent hockey market. As luck would have it, someone is selling just that and Balsillie made an offer. Sounds legitimate to me. Yes, he's being aggressive, but as I mentioned, when he tried to play by the 'rules' he was still rejected.

    4)I am not giving Bettman credit because he never should have put a team in Phoenix in the first place (or Atlanta or Tampa or Florida, etc.). Also, I am not giving him credit because he is being stubborn. He may have helped save Ottawa and a couple of other markets, but he did precious nothing to save Winnipeg, Quebec City, Minnesota, and even Hartford. Incidentally, where were the so-called rules when Peter Karmonos bought the Whalers and without prior notice or particular effort to keep the team in Hartford, moved them to the South? I guess that's what happens when the rules are made up as you go along. Bettman's not anti-Canada, but he's insanely committed to his sun-belt agenda to the detriment of the league. As for the rules, they simply do not exist. And I hate to break this to you, but the NHL is already the laughingstock of professional sports, thanks to Bettman's willingness to sell teams to crooks and other Bettman-era gems like three point games.

    5)How is Balsillie going over a cliff? He's got absolutely nothing to lose here. Bettman, with you and the rest of his apologists in tow, are heading over a cliff. As for the website, it demonstrates what kind of madness there is for hockey in this market, making Bettman look even stupider for refusing Balsillie because of his deep-south pipe dream. The fact that he was able to sell more season tickets for the Hamilton Predators than either the Coyotes or the real Predators can sell is additional evidence.

    6)Phoenix can NOT become a great hockey market. Yes, if they were a great team, they'd sell more tickets and generate interest for a while. But that's true in any market and for any sport. But not every team can be successful - unless the Bettman administration implements four point games, in which the winner gets two points and the loser gets two points, which is probably not that far away. Anaheim won the cup two years ago, made the playoffs last year, and still haven't sold out every playoff game this season. But if you want to keep trying in Phoenix, and can find someone who's willing to lose 20-30 million dollars per year until it starts working, more power to you. Selling to Balsillie and allowing him to move the team is not just the best option, it's the only option.

  8. Pal Hal:

    Thanks for your comments, but I have to respectfully disagree.

    There are corporate rules and by-laws that govern the awarding, locating and transfer of franchises - never mind the rules that protect other franchisees territorial rights. If I want a Tim Horton's franchise and I find one that's failing in Trenton, I can't just buy it and move it to East York. To be a franchise owner, I have to apply to Tim Horton's and be in compliance with their rules and regs. Moreover, any corporate entity, such as the NHL, that issues franchises has the right to determine who their franchise holders are.

    I can't speak to the viability of the Phoenix market, but selling to Balsillie is certainly not the only option. The Coyotes could be dissolved with a dispersal draft to follow; they could be split between two new franchises a la the Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks; the team's lease and financial obligations could be restructured with the league or a group of new investors running the team; or they could be packed up and moved to Kansas City in the middle of the night...I'm not an expert in this field, but I imagine there are countless scenarios here.

    As for a third team in Ontario, Balsillie isn't the only option: at least two investment groups have already met with the NHL and NHLPA and I'm sure there are countless more.

    Considering his past run-ins with the league, I'm doubtful Balsillie's name will even make the shortlist when the time comes to formally put a franchise in Southern Ontario.