Sens owner Melnyk responds Balsillie

OTTAWA -- Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk fired back at BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie on Thursday.

Melnyk released a statement that reads like an open letter to Balsillie. He addressed claims by the Research In Motion co-CEO that Melnyk lacks personal integrity and expressed dismay over Balsillie's attempt to buy the Phoenix Coyotes.

"I clearly believe the sport of hockey is better off without him," Melnyk said.

The NHL's board of governors recently rejected Balsillie as a prospective owner because he lacks "good character and integrity." In response, he filed documents in an Arizona bankruptcy court that mentioned Melnyk and other NHL owners while arguing that the league hadn't considered the character of previous buyers.

That touched a nerve with Melnyk, who claims to have unsuccessfully tried to reach Balsillie after being "dragged ... into his hurricane of legal filings." The men don't know each other well and haven't spoken about the issue.

"I will say in response publicly that his willingness to drag down anyone he can get his hands on along with him is discouraging and saddens me," Melnyk said.

Melnyk acknowledged in his statement that he has paid fines to the Ontario Securities Commission for "administrative oversights" but notes that it was a far from the sanctions that have been levied against Balsillie and his company.

When contacted by The Canadian Press, a spokesman for Balsillie refused to comment on Melnyk's statement.

Balsillie has offered $212.5 million to buy the Coyotes, but the deal is contingent on the team relocating to Hamilton, Ontario. The NHL wants to keep the team in Arizona and favors a $148-million bid from Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns baseball's Chicago White Sox and the NBA's Bulls.

The case is playing out in a Phoenix bankruptcy court.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly also issued a statement Thursday in support of Melnyk.

"Balsillie's attempt in any way to disparage [Melnyk's] reputation and his good standing as an NHL owner is nothing more than a malicious act of desperation," Daly said. "During his time in the league, Mr. Melnyk has been a model owner and good and loyal business partner to the rest of the league's clubs."

Melnyk indicated that he once felt bad for Balsillie but now understands why he shouldn't be allowed to own an NHL team.

"I have watched with some dismay Jim Balsillie's fall from being a deserving business icon to what now appears to be a desperate man willing to say anything or do anything to buy an NHL franchise," he said.

Bankruptcy judge Redfield T. Baum has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 2 in Phoenix to determine whether to uphold the NHL's rejection of Balsillie. If Baum decides to ignore the vote, Balsillie could participate in a Sept. 10 auction for the Coyotes.

Melnyk noted that his own entrance to the league involved overcoming obstacles, and that he "played by the rules and respected the NHL as an institution."

"I'm comfortable in my own skin, Jim," Melnyk wrote toward the end of his statement. "You should look around at the friends you are losing and the damage you are causing to yourself, the NHL and all Canadians."