Nonsense in Arizona
To me, the NHL’s position on the Phoenix Coyotes has never been as preposterous as some would believe.
It wants a team in that large U.S. market, or more specifically, believes that a successful, efficiently run club would do just fine and be of benefit to the league.
You and I and the NHLPA may not agree, but it’s not a preposterous position.
That said, the latest NHL maneuver, to buy the Coyotes itself, try to sell them to a third party or relocate the team for (hopefully) a profit is such an extreme manipulation of the process that it exposes the NHL to the three most damaging charges its harshest critics would hurl in its direction, such as:
1. The NHL is willing to do anything to stop Phoenix moving to Canada, but wasn’t willing to do the same thing when Winnipeg and Quebec City were pulling up stakes and heading south.
Why didn’t the Bettman administration buy the Jets or the Nordiques to make sure they wouldn’t move? Why was the league less worried about decreasing the number of Canadian teams to six from eight than it is about maintaining a position in a large market that appears to have a limited appetite for the sport?
“The fact is, the biggest litmus test ultimately was nobody wanted to own a team there. And when the marketplace decides that it doesn’t want to own a team there, it has no future,” said Bettman back in ’96 when the Jets were leaving Manitoba.
To those who would accuse Bettman of being anti-Canadian, this is useful stuff.
2. It makes the league appear to be carrying water for the Maple Leafs, acting as the burly security guard blocking the door at a swanky club so the Leafs can dine on sushi inside without having to deal with the riff-raff.
It’s like 1991 all over again, with Hamilton suspiciously rejected while smoke-and-mirror expansion bids from Ottawa and Tampa Bay were accepted. Hamilton at least had an arena, and its interesting now that one of the reasons the NHL is carting out to explain the difference between the Phoenix situation and that of Quebec City and Winnipeg is that there’s a state-of-the-art arena in the desert built largely at taxpayers expense and the league has a responsibility to that. Well, so did Hamilton.
Then and now, it appears, at least, that the NHL will do anything – anything – to protect the Leafs’ turf.
3. The sense that this is an ABB (Anybody But Balsillie) exercise grows. Its sort of like when Ken Dryden went out to search for a new GM for the Leafs and discovered himself. The NHL, faced with a situation in which Balsillie might be the only bid, suddenly believes it should own the team itself.
Imagine the potential conflicts if the league is successful and operates the team for the 2009-2010 season. Say Shane Doan decides to club Mike Modano, and after a hearing the league rules that Doan shouldn’t be suspended. Or imagine a disputed Coyotes goal late in a game that is reviewed back in Toronto and is ruled legal and decides the match. Or lets say the Coyotes are suddenly able to swing a lopsided trade with the Minnesota Wild, owned by Bettman loyalist Craig Leipold.
All these legal and financial gymnastics just to keep Balsillie out. Just more ammunition for Bettman’s critics.