Balsillie vs. Bettman, Round Two

So it’s down to the NHL vs. Jim Balsillie now. Should the NHL be allowed to own of one of its own teams? I would have imagined that the league owning a team would not be allowed, though I suppose MLB owned the Expos for a short while. The really weird thing about this – scratch that. One of the really weird things about this is that the NHL has publicly stated that if they win the auction, they will consider moving the Coyotes out of Phoenix.  I beg your pardon? Isn’t that one of the main reasons that they refuse to let Balsillie into the club? They keep saying that an NHL team can be successful in Phoenix (despite the fact that it hasn’t been in fourteen years), so why would they need to move them? And if they’re not against moving them, what’s the problem with letting Balsillie do it?

The NHL has stated that the other main reason that they’re so dead set against Balsillie is because of his supposed “lack of integrity”. Right. Because NHL owners are just packed to the gills with integrity. Here is an article listing five former NHL owners who have spent time in prison, and that doesn’t include the recently-convicted Boots Del Biaggio.

But even if the NHL wins the auction, then what? The number of season tickets sold in Phoenix for this year is in the hundreds (compared to the twelve thousand plus for the Leafs), they’ll have the same trouble finding sponsors and selling advertising that the previous owners had, and they’ve stated that they may move or sell the team. Jim Balsillie is the only one currently interested in buying the team. So the league will spend well over a hundred million to buy the team, lose millions of dollars operating the team, and then either move it anyway, or sell it at a loss. That’s a lot of money to spend just to spite Jim Balsillie. And if they end up selling it to Balsillie anyway, it will all have been for nothing.

Stephen Brunt said on Prime Time Sports the other day that if the NHL loses this auction, Gary Bettman’s days as commissioner are numbered, and he’s probably right. Which means that Bettman is gambling not only hundreds of millions of dollars of the NHL’s money, but his job as well. Is keeping Balsillie out of the ownership club really that important?

As much as I would love to see an NHL team in Hamilton, I can’t say I support the way Jim Balsillie has done this. His tactics have been heavy-handed and he’s certainly not making friends of the other owners nor the league executive. Would an NHL team work in Hamilton? I think so. There are enough hockey fans in this area, plus there would be lots of people from the Guelph-Cambridge-Kitchener-Waterloo area that would come, not to mention all the GTA people who can’t get Leafs tickets. I found it amusing a couple of years ago when a group of people who wanted to bring an NHL team to Hamilton proposed boycotting pre-season NHL games in Hamilton to “send a message” to the NHL. Good thinking guys – show the NHL how wrong they were by allowing them to hold a pre-season game here to an empty arena. The next time they’re considering expansion or moving a team, they’re not going to remember a boycott, all they’re going to remember is playing to an embarrassingly small crowd in Hamilton and quickly scratch the name off the list.

Opponents of an NHL team in Hamilton point to the lack of interest in the Hamilton Bulldogs as proof that the NHL won’t work here. But that’s a faulty argument, and here’s why.

I am a Hamilton resident who would be interested in watching and supporting a Hamilton NHL team but isn’t interested in the Bulldogs. I’m sure the Bulldogs are full of talented young players, but honestly, they’re a farm team. The whole idea of the team (and the AHL in general) is to give the players experience and get them ready for the NHL. It’s really hard to get pumped up for a team whose players would leave in a heartbeat if they get a call from the big club. You can’t blame them for that – getting to the NHL has likely been a dream for every one of the Bulldogs players since they first laced up the skates as a child. The AHL is mainly made up of three types of players: those too young or inexperienced to be in the NHL, those who simply aren’t good enough to be in the NHL, and those who have had a taste of the NHL but were the lowest on the totem pole when it came to sending someone down. But the NHL is the pinnacle of professional hockey, containing the best players in the world. Any way you slice it, the quality of players in the AHL is lower than in the NHL. Doesn’t mean that AHL games can’t be exciting – as long as two teams are roughly equivalent in skill level, you can have an exciting game at any level. But if you combine the lower skill level with what I said before about players bolting the second they get the chance at an NHL team, I cannot see how the argument can be made that a city that doesn’t support the AHL won’t support the NHL.


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