Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dispatches from the Bettman / Balsillie battleground.

All is quiet on the front lines today, as the NHL keeps its counsel on the state of negotiations between the Predators and would be owner Jim Balsillie.

For his part, the swashbuckling billionaire who seems to have gotten onto the wrong side of the NHL Commissioner has gone to the ground as they say, not issuing any more ticket counts out of Hamilton, nor thinking aloud over potential relocations of the soon to be declawed Predators.

The last three days have seen the NHL hijack its own marquee event of the amateur draft and appear to be a collection of devious spin meisters. With a cryptic declaration making the rounds at the start of the draft that the Balsillie bid was no longer working its way through the system, many were wondering if war had been declared on the would be Canadian owner.

As it turned out, the original spin on the story wasn’t quite true, instead it was perhaps a warning shot from Craig Leipold to both sides, that he was getting tired of carrying the can on this mess and that somebody should sign some papers pretty soon.

It’s hard to fathom this vision of the NHL turning away a media savvy billionaire, more than willing to overpay for what will soon be a team that has nothing but an AHL roster. While the negotiations and backroom theatrics continue on, the Predators are dumping players and salaries at a rate last seen by the Florida Panthers when the Blockbuster money ran out. It’s not a pretty sight to see a team jettison a squad that took the franchise into the playoffs for the first time, but considering Leipold’s losses in the last few years and his obvious desire to be done with the team it’s not surprising.

But in short the NHL needs to clean up its mess and clean it up fast. Gary Bettman’s James Gagney stance was amusing at the start, but realistically Balsillie is the kind of owner the leagues should be seeking out regularly. Besides the new media directions he could bring to the game through his connection with RIM, he clearly loves hockey. He’s sufficiently well off financially to bankroll a team wherever he would want to put one and he’s struck a chord with Canadians as a kind of nationalist crusader to return the game back to where it originated from. Mr. Bettman should realize when he’s got a losing hand, put down his cards and call it a day.

Terms of surrender should be negotiated as soon as possible; otherwise the Commissioner may find that his hold on his empire will begin to crumble. While he probably can find a few owners to stand with him on his battle line, there’s a very good chance that an embarrassing showdown will push his support on the issue to a very one sided defeat. Outside of Toronto and Buffalo and maybe the old hard liners in Boston and Chicago, it’s hard to see the other 26 owners saying. “Nope we don’t want his money, nor his inflated value for our franchises.”

The NHL has been known to shoot itself in the foot far too frequently, somebody needs to take the ammunition pile away from the Commissioner before its too late.

As can be found in the following links, if the NHL doesn’t solve this problem quickly, its image problem may be much worse under the glare of legal and government spotlights.

Steve Milton-Hamilton Spectator-Balsillie vs. Bettman
John Kernghan-Hamilton Spectator-Balsillie 'won't upset (NHL) apple cart'
Stephen Brunt-Globe and Mail-NHL's constitution will be put to the test
Jim Kelley-Sportsnet.ca-Do the Right Thing
Damien Cox-The Toronto Star-NHL calling the tune in Nashville
Dave Perkins-The Toronto Star-Balsillie's money talks

No comments: