The Reuters global sports blog
NHL and Blackberry maker boss face off in court
The United States is just across the lake, of course, and on clear days you can almost see it – a sort of line, a sort of haze…Strange, and more dangerous – that much is clear – and maybe because of that superior. Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride
In his book Star-Spangled Canadians: Canadians Living the American Dream, journalist Jeffrey Simpson chronicles the lives of Canadians who have left their homeland to display their talent on the world’s biggest stage.
Since the late 1980s the National Hockey League (NHL) has been dreaming about landing a lucrative network television deal south of the Canadian border.
Their sales pitch began in earnest in 1988 when Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, left sleepy Edmonton to pursue his career in Los Angeles. And to put a Hollywood spin on the storyline, Gretzky married American actress Janet Jones, whose other claim to fame is a small part in the movie Police Academy 5.
The trade happened in the midst of a federal election when free trade with the United States was the overriding issue. The timing led many Canadians to interpret the move as yet another example of a “natural resource” being gobbled up by the American giant.
Gretzky’s success in boosting the NHL’s profile in sunny California and beyond prompted league executives to set in motion the second and most aggressive phase of their sunbelt expansion. In the 90s, the league moved the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, Texas; awarded Miami and Tampa Bay new teams, moved the Nordiques from Quebec City to Denver, Colorado, while the Jets were uprooted from frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba and transplanted in the Arizona desert to become the Coyotes.
After 13 years in Phoenix, with Wayne Gretzky as head coach and minority team owner, the “Desert Dogs” appear to be skating on thin ice these days. The team’s decision to seek bankruptcy protection will probably force the NHL to assess the success of its rapid expansion outside Canada, mostly in sunbelt markets with little or no hockey history.
News of the Coyotes bankruptcy proceedings set off an almost uncontrollable bout of schadenfreude among Canadian hockey fans who felt powerless and snubbed when NHL executives argued that Quebec City and Winnipeg didn’t have the corporate backbone to sustain professional hockey teams.
Research in Motion Ltd co-CEO Jim Balsillie is trying to tap the lingering frustration of ordinary Canadian hockey fans who still dream of repatriating an American-based hockey team.
In recent interviews, Balsillie, whose company makes Blackberries, has taken an increasingly nationalistic tone to make his case and he’s morphed into some sort of Captain Canada.
During an hour-long interview with the Toronto Star newspaper’s editorial board, RIM’s co-CEO was quoted as saying: “I take on entrenched interests. It’s my character quirk. I don’t quit and I don’t get scared,” said Balsillie. “I love the NHL, I love hockey and I believe this is part of our soul as Canadians and we don’t feel we have enough stake in our own soul.”
Balsillie’s love for Canada and hockey are well documented. Each time the NHL turns him down, it only seems to fuel his desire to snap up an American-based franchise even more. It probably brought to mind the naysayers who claimed Research in Motion could never thrive in Canada, let alone in the town of Waterloo, Ontario. As of May 15, 2009, the company had a market capitalization of $40 billion and the naysayers are nowhere to be found.
After failing to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by the Nashville Predators, Balsillie is convinced the NHL will never let him own a franchise. During that same interview with the Toronto Star, he was quoted as saying: “I spent five years looking for a front door. … We couldn’t find a front door. I found a side door.”
That side door happens to be located in an Arizona bankruptcy court. Balsillie wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5 million from owner Jerry Moyes, conditional on the team relocating to Hamilton, a blue-collar suburb sandwiched between Toronto, Ontario and Buffalo, New York.
But the NHL claims Moyes lost control of the team when he received bailout funds from the league. In motions filed in an Arizona bankruptcy court, the NHL was quoted as saying: “it is a matter of indisputable fact and law that the NHL rather than (Moyes), owns any franchise opportunity in southern Ontario. Accordingly any bid for the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes solely for relocation to Ontario is a sham and should be rejected by the court.”
The NHL accuses Balsillie of trying to overturn its rules governing relocation of teams which prevent a franchise from moving within 80 kilometers of another team without permission.
Balsillie has done little to soothe the growing rift and at this rate, cooler heads might want to offer Balsillie and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman a copy of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller “How to Win Friends & Influence People”.
Balsillie’s latest bid to buy an NHL franchise has once again ignited a debate (at least in Canada) about the future of hockey as a major professional sport in the United States.
Do you think the National Hockey League should continue to bailout money-losing American franchises and prevent billionaire Balsillie from buying and relocating a team to Canada?
PHOTO: Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky (top) looks on during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Glendale, Arizona, February 14, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Scuteri