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Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Balsillie again takes wrong approach

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

In the end, you have to ask yourself this question about BlackBerry lord Jim Balsillie and his quixotic quest for an NHL franchise: Does he really want a team, or is he more interested in kicking sand in commissioner Gary Bettman's corn flakes?

It's a fair question following Balsillie's latest bid to join the NHL owners club, an offer of a whopping $212.5 million for the troubled Phoenix Coyotes provided he can move them to Southern Ontario.

Like his earlier bids to acquire and then move the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, this gambit looks like it has almost no hope of succeeding in large part because Balsillie continues to try the old end-around as opposed to a more conciliatory approach.

Jim Balsillie
After failing to land past bids with Pittsburgh and Nashville, Jim Balsillie is trying again with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Diplomacy definitely is not in Balsillie's vocabulary, and he appears more like a man who believes that simply because he is richer than rich, Canadian and owns a pair of skates and a stick, it is his birthright to own an NHL franchise.

Guess what? Balsillie is not the only rich guy in the room, although his actions regularly suggest he thinks he is. And trying to put the NHL in a headlock and make it say, "Uncle! You can be an owner" is never going to play. Not with Bettman as commissioner. That's why this latest scheme smacks of trying not just to land a team, but to create a pressure point where the NHL owners have to decide between Bettman and Balsillie.

That strategy, if indeed it's part of the dynamic here, seems fatally flawed.

We recall talking to an NHL owner a couple of years ago when Balsillie had been denied in his attempts to secure the Predators, a bid marked by his soliciting down payments on season tickets for a team in Hamilton, Ontario. What was wrong with Balsillie, we asked? After all, he is a passionate hockey guy and is certainly rich and smart, something that hasn't necessarily been the case with all NHL owners past and present.

The owner explained that, with the salary cap in place, owning an NHL team is an attractive bauble for rich people who like to have their toys, whether they're big yachts or race horses or sports teams. This owner figured there would always be demand for teams, which is why potential owners have to act nice. They can't run around like secret squirrels trying to sneak into the club. Which is exactly what Balsillie has consistently done; it is what he has done with this latest bid.

Balsillie and Jerry Moyes, the trucking magnate who continues to lose around $40 million annually on the Coyotes, cooked up this deal on the sly. How's that for loyalty, by the way? Moyes has been getting handouts and advances from the NHL for months to help his cash-strapped team stay afloat, and then he slithers around behind the league's back, quietly declaring his team bankrupt to pave the way, in theory, for Balsillie to buy the Coyotes and move them out of town.

Honorable? Hardly.

You know how this is going to play in Canada, of course.

Balsillie has already set up a Web site to attract support for the repatriation of one of Canada's NHL franchises, the Coyotes having left Winnipeg in 1996.

No one seems to remember the team moved because the prairie city couldn't afford to have an NHL team. It still can't, but that doesn't stop Canadians pining for more NHL franchises in the Great White North. So, Balsillie is seen in many Canadians as a great champion of their grand game.

Some in the Canadian media like to portray Balsillie as the white knight to Bettman's evil scientist, intent on performing unspeakable experiments on the game they hold so near and dear.

The Phoenix experiment, of course, has been a disaster, both on the ice and in the board room. A series of woeful business decisions made by Moyes and his former partners have conspired to make the future bleak in the desert. But the future looked bleak in other NHL cities in the past. Remember when it looked like Calgary would lose its team? Or Ottawa? Or Buffalo? Or Pittsburgh? The league stayed the course and those are all healthy markets now.

Could Phoenix be another example? Maybe. Maybe not.

At the very moment Moyes was filing Chapter 11 papers Tuesday, TSN of Canada reported Bettman was in Phoenix to discuss with Moyes a potential offer from Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Once Bettman found out about the bankruptcy/Balsillie scenario, those discussions didn't take place. Shortly thereafter, Moyes was stripped of his duties by the NHL, setting the stage for what will be an ugly court case over the bankruptcy and the ownership bid.

No doubt Reinsdorf wouldn't be interesting in paying what Balsillie is offering, but that always has been Balsillie's strategy: overpay because he can.

Would the Coyotes be better off somewhere in Southern Ontario? Everyone assumes another franchise in or near Toronto, the country's biggest city, would be an instant money-maker. And given recent meetings held with local businessmen and deputy commissioner Bill Daly in Toronto, Balsillie isn't the only one who thinks so.

It behooves the NHL and its partner, the NHL Players' Association, which tacitly supports the addition of another Canadian team because of the potential revenue boost it would represent, to do a detailed study on whether another Ontario team is valid. And it behooves them to make those findings public. The study should include what the impact would be on the Buffalo Sabres, who draw heavily from the Niagara region, and the mighty Maple Leafs.

Let's not guess or assume it would work, let's find out.

It would make more sense than trying to ram yourself down the league's throat, as Balsillie seems intent on doing ... again.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.