Bettman's dedication to Canada will be tested
From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
June 19, 2007 at 7:21 PM EDT
If Gary Bettman does indeed address the National Hockey League's board of governors Wednesday on the subject of the Nashville Predators and their possible relocation, he'll have the perfect chance to recycle some of his best material.
Back when he was in full propagandist mode, lobbying for government handouts or setting the stage for the great labour war, Bettman couldn't say enough gushy stuff about Canada and hockey, intentionally blurring the line between the game, its culture and the New York-based entertainment business over which he presides.
"We cannot allow — I will not allow — Canada's gift to the world to diminish here in its home country," the commissioner told a receptive Canadian Club audience in Toronto. "We must work to strengthen the game from its smallest grassroots to its mightiest franchises.
"I want you to know that we at the league level will work tirelessly to assure that the game remains strong and grows. We may need some help along the way, and I'll talk about that. But we are committed at the league, and I speak for all of our teams, both north and south of the border, to maintaining and growing the game in the country that gave birth to it. Hockey is undeniably Canada's game."
After that, he made reference to the Howie Morenz funeral, the Richard riot, Bobby Baun's broken leg and, for good measure, Paul Henderson's goal, but you get the picture. The NHL just wanted to make sure, he implied, that a Winnipeg or a Quebec City would never be left to mourn the loss of a franchise again. "I never want to be in a position to have to look back and say we missed an opportunity to keep our game strong and vital in Canada," Bettman concluded. "I assure you of our diligence in that regard."
So how's that diligence thing going?
The NHL hierarchy right now seems determined to do anything in its power to prevent a blue-chip potential owner from moving a moribund franchise in a dead American market to a Canadian city where folks are falling all over themselves to offer up deposits on season's tickets.
To that end, various league sources have started trying to demonize Jim Balsillie, referring to him off the record as "a clown," sending out the message that he's a Mark Cuban in waiting, perhaps an Al Davis, that he'd be a destructive influence on the league. (Unlike, say, the various former NHL owners who have been led away in handcuffs.)
Since there's no rational reason to reject the Preds' move to Southern Ontario (aside from protecting the interests of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, which may put the league in dicey legal territory if it were out front about it), maybe character assassination will work. Painting Balsillie as a loose cannon, a billionaire kook, is a whole lot easier than trying to argue with a straight face (as Bettman did during the Stanley Cup final) that a second Southern Ontario franchise would have trouble attracting sufficient media coverage.
Consider this: When he was attempting to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL board of governors approved this "clown" unanimously. Balsillie's greatest sin since then is supposedly that he hasn't played by the rules, that he's been too public in his dealings with the city of Hamilton and that he was out of line launching the season-ticket campaign when the league hadn't yet approved the purchase of the team.
But according to the league's bylaws, a potential owner has to have an arena lease and demonstrate hockey interest in a market before he has any chance of securing a team. Hard to do either in secrecy.
In Kansas City, without any criticism from the league, William (Boots) Del Biaggio has done pretty much the same thing. He has secured an exclusive option to play in the Sprint Center. He has made explicit his intention to buy an ailing NHL franchise or an expansion team and move it there. It's been all over the local papers.
Haven't heard anyone in the NHL call him names, other than Boots. Don't expect that he'll be accused of "destabilizing" the Atlanta Thrashers or Florida Panthers or whatever other dead-end franchise might become his target.
That's because what's happening with Balsillie isn't about him, it isn't about protocol, and it certainly isn't about all of those Canadian hockey platitudes that Bettman once so passionately espoused.
Check out the history of the NHL, not of Morenz and the Rocket and Henderson, but of its dealings with the hockey-mad saps in Canada. Lots of take, especially when the owners needed fan pressure to help win the lockout, not much give and no upsetting the wealthiest, most powerful franchise in the sport.
Nothing, it seems, has changed.