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Friday, July 18, 2008
Owner issues shouldn't get in way of NHL's progress

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

In a summer when the National Hockey League should be celebrating so much -- a terrific postseason, last season's outdoor game in Buffalo, this upcoming season's Winter Classic in Chicago, regular-season openers in Stockholm and Prague, a new generation of stars more than capable of erasing the sins of the past -- leave it to the league's owners to rain on their own parade.

Sad, but utterly predictable.

The postseason wasn't even over and Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli was already admitting he lied to federal securities investigators about stock manipulation relating to his communications company Broadcom.

Gary Bettman
Last month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Ducks owner Henry Samueli indefinitely from any involvement with the club and league after Samueli pleaded guilty for lying to federal securities investigators.

We know it's not particularly trendy to be supportive of Gary Bettman these days, but it took a good amount of courage for the oft-battered NHL commissioner to suspend Samueli indefinitely.

This wasn't a "we'll-see-you-in-October" slap on the wrist from Bettman. When will Samueli be back at the helm of the 2007 Stanley Cup champs? No one knows.

It goes without saying that Bettman did the right thing. After slapping Mark Bell with a 15-game suspension after Bell pleaded guilty to a drunken-driving incident a year ago in San Jose and handing down what amounted to be a two-year suspension to admitted gambling felon Rick Tocchet, Bettman had no choice but to come down hard on Samueli.

The fact Samueli and the rest of the owners are, at least in theory, Bettman's bosses, put the commissioner in an uncomfortable position of having to bite the hand that feeds him. And the Samueli case is just one edge of the ownership sword that hangs over the league this offseason.

Of course, we're speaking of the William "Boots" Del Biaggio III fiasco in Nashville.

Look in the dictionary under "grifter" and you'll see slick Willy's picture. The number of folks Del Biaggio apparently lied to and/or swindled is long. Banks, investors, NHL owners and the NHL itself were all apparently under Del Biaggio's spell. Fair enough. People get taken all the time. Look at those folks who buy Toronto Maple Leafs season tickets.

That this kind of stuff happened to the NHL, and specifically to a franchise that was in the middle of a wrestling match between Canadian techno-mogul Jim Balsillie and Bettman, means the optics of this are less appealing.

The Tennessean recently reported Del Biaggio had a slick slideshow presentation he was offering up to potential investors that suggested the Predators were a team ripe to be moved. No surprise there, except, apparently, to the rest of the ownership group in Nashville, all of whom are locals and determined, bless their hearts and wallets, to keep the team in town.

The second part of the story reported that Del Biaggio bragged to those he was trying to lure into partnership that he had been allowed to circumvent the NHL's rigorous financial background checks. Now, given that Del Biaggio can hardly put on a pair of slippers without making like Pinocchio, this "revelation" has to be taken with a giant grain of salt.

One of those potential investors, Doug Bergeron, told The Tennessean that Bettman discussed with him how he had helped bring Del Biaggio and the local ownership group together. Bettman and the league have consistently helped broker deals to keep teams in local markets, most recently in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins represent a shining example of why simply picking up and moving teams is a bad idea.

The league insists Del Biaggio was treated like every other prospective owner. If he wasn't, or if the rest of the league's owners believe Del Biaggio was given a free pass, those owners should move to remove Bettman immediately given the hit to the league's credibility.

The problem for this ownership group is some of them are among the real culprits in the league's dicey situation vis-a-vis Del Biaggio.

There are two interesting tidbits related to the investigation into Del Biaggio's financial wheelings and dealings involving two members of the NHL ownership group, Anschutz Entertainment Group (which oversees the Los Angeles Kings) and erstwhile Predators owner Craig Leipold. Problem No. 1: AEG and Leipold decided it would be a good idea to lend Del Biaggio a total of $17 million on the eve of the Predators sale. Problem No. 2: They decided they didn't need to tell Bettman or any league official about the loans.

Maybe Del Biaggio told them it was to help in his messy divorce; maybe he told them he lost the key to his lockbox or he needed a new set of golf clubs. Hey, all of these guys are obscenely rich (except Del Biaggio, of course) -- what's $17 million between friends? Well, the exception is both parties had a vested interest in seeing Del Biaggio close the deal.

Leipold was so desperate to get out from under the Predators' mess, he took over as owner of the Minnesota Wild a year ago in a deal first reported in this space. Maybe he ignored the red flags that should have gone up when Del Biaggio approached him about the loan. Maybe the deal was so important to him, Leipold ignored the internal voice that whispered, "Better check with Gary on this one Craig, don't you think?"

Likewise, AEG had a stake in Del Biaggio's presence in the NHL club. They're the owners of that shiny, new and empty arena in Kansas City, and, along with Del Biaggio, had been trying to lure the Penguins there when it looked like a new arena deal was going to go belly up in Pittsburgh. So, it was important to AEG that Del Biaggio get his feet in the NHL door regardless of the fact the loan request should have made them circumspect of Del Biaggio's real assets.

The unwritten rule of the NHL ownership club is no secrets, or, at least, no secrets from the big guy. When Tom Hicks (Dallas) and George Gillette (Montreal) decided to go in on a little soccer team called Liverpool, they weren't bound by the rules to tell Bettman, but they did regardless because it was the right thing to do.

ESPN.com has learned, that is all going to change come fall, when owners will be instructed by the NHL to reveal their financial relationships with other owners. It probably should have been done before and the errors in judgment from AEG and Leipold in the Del Biaggio mess revealed that flaw in a way that embarrasses themselves as much as the NHL.

Had Leipold or AEG bothered to tell Bettman what they were doing, one has to believe the deal would have been put on hold regardless of how badly Bettman and the rest wanted the sale done. The integrity of the league and Bettman's leadership demands it, and given his handling of the Samueli matter, we are prepared to accept that.

Let's assume Bettman didn't cut any corners when it came to Del Biaggio's inspection. Let's assume if he had known about the wink-wink loans from Anschutz and Leipold, he would have put the brakes on the Predators sale. What now?

We've suggested this before, but it bears repeating. The embarrassing Del Biaggio story is intricately woven with that of BlackBerry founder Balsillie and his bid to own an NHL franchise.

This isn't as simple as saying Balsillie was the right guy and Del Biaggio was the wrong one. But shouldn't both sides of this line want to mend those fences? Why not invite Balsillie to the next board of governors meeting, ask him questions, get to know him and find out if he's the demon many people believe? Why not do the same thing with others who might be interested in joining the NHL, like movie mogul Jerry Bruckheimer, in an effort to make sure it doesn't spend another offseason cleaning up after itself?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.