Sunday, May 17, 2009

One 'skate' to drop amid the obfuscation from Balsillie and Bettman

There is more than one way to thin-slice what someone says in a court filing. As soon as the word of what Gary Bettman said in court filings hit the newswires yesterday, one knee-jerk reaction was, "Here we go. Head-fake 'em with the talk about Winnipeg and the idiots go for it." Bettman didn't necessarily say he wanted the Phoenix Coyotes to move to Winnipeg; he just hates the idea less than them moving to Southern Ontario, since it would mean giving in to Jim Balsillie.

Now that the throat has been cleared of snarky phlegm, there is a historical precedent people should think about amid the legal hockey tape holding together the remnants of the Coyotes franchise. If applied, it could represent a win-win for both Emperor Gary and BlackBerry boy. Balsillie would get a hockey team. Bettman would have so much hand that it would be coming out of his gloves!

The precedent involves a U.S. city which just lost a major pro sports team — Seattle — and a team located in Southern Ontario.

Of course, this is just one ass-talker's personal theory, not to be taken literally. It derives from:
  • A desire to see a second NHL team in Southern Ontario, although its catchment area is very vague;
  • Animus/grudging admiration for Gary Bettman;
  • A knowledge of the legal pinholes Jim Balsillie must pass through to enter the kingdom of hoser heaven, owning a NHL team.
As some of you know, the Seattle Mariners baseball team "were created as a result of a lawsuit." (Wikipedia.) The city had a team, the Seattle Pilots, which existed for only one season, 1969, before they were bought and relocated to Milwaukee. All three levels of government sued the American League for breach of contract and eventually, the league set things right by offering them an expansion franchise to begin play in 1977.

The Toronto Blue Jays also came into being during that round of expansion, since a baseball league requires an even number of teams. For those who don't remember or find this as dry as a great-uncle's funeral, shortly before that time Labatt's had almost succeeded in purchasing the San Francisco Giants and moving them to Toronto. An 11th-hour effort by business and political leaders in San Fran, including late Mayor George Moscone, kept the Giants from moving.

The thought of three levels of government, the city of Hamilton, the province of Ontario and the government of Canada, suing the NHL might be a little far-fetched, even if Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a professed hockey nut who's not above being litigious. We're probably too docile to take that step.

All three levels of government certainly have self-interest. The city council wants to revitalize the rapidly deteriorating downtown core in the Hammer. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government, as others have already noted, would like to take back some once solidly-red ridings in the 905 area code that have gone NDP in the biggest union town in Canada. Attaching a hockey team to any big federal-provincial infrastructure project, such as the expanded light-rail system Southern Ontario is begging for, would make it an easier sell. (As an aside, you do realize that by 2025, you're going to be nostalgic for the days when gas for your car was only $1.30 a litre?)

There is a scenario which could come into play as this winds it way through the court system. The NHL, as baseball did, could turn around and offer Balsillie an expansion team. It would be a face-save and a sop to Canadian patriotism, plus it is probably inevitable that the NHL will have to put a second team in the Toronto area, since it is one of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in North America and the largest where hockey is a major sport (where it ranks in size is debatable, see the comments from Jason Cormier). Two of the larger three, New York and L.A., have more than one hockey team. Chicago also has a thriving AHL franchise.

It would allow both to get what they want. Balsillie gets a team, albeit an expansion outfit instead of the Coyotes, who are presently a good young team that's close to being a contender. He gets time to build an arena that is more accessible to fans in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and in Toronto. This addresses any concern about a team playing out of Copps Coliseum siphoning off ticket buyers from the Buffalo Sabres, who always seem to have one skate on the banana peel which is Western New York's economy:
"The Sabres are always in a very precarious financial position, given Buffalo's shrinking size and awful economy. The Sabres (company name Niagara Frontier Hockey, L.P.) depend on the roughly 15 percent of their business that comes from the Niagara Peninsula, all the way up the Golden Horseshoe to Hamilton. Never mind that after almost 40 years most of the Canadians who attend Sabres games do not root for Buffalo; the main thing is that they’re helping to fill the HSBC Arena."
Jeff Z. Klein, The New York Times
Meantime, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will still have "hand," to borrow George Costanza's term, in the relationship. It reduces the possibility of Bettman having to present the Stanley Cup to one of Balsillie's employees in the near future.

Bettman, et al., certainly want to expand the NHL from 30 to 32 teams, even during a recession.

The Hollywood producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, a noted "celebrity puckhead," (From The Rink) is apparently interested in owning a team in Las Vegas (David Shoalts, Please also keep in mind that another fish Bettman would like to fry is to provide a tenant for the Sprint Center in Kansas City, which is operated by L.A. Kings owner Phillip Anschutz's company.

It could become a three-minus-one: The NHL adds Kansas City, Las Vegas and thethe Golden Horseshoe Hammerheads, while subtracting Phoenix. It could also be four-minus-two, if the Sabres' situation in Western New York becomes untenable if the local economy continues to crater; relocation to a more western city such as Winnipeg or Seattle could be on the table. (Klein, a Sabres fan, makes a good point that people should stand up to defend "a true hockey city" such as Buffalo, but he lays on a little thick by pointing out that many hockey people make their home there. They moved to avoid paying Canadian taxes.)

No one knows how an Arizona bankruptcy court might mind. The best we get before Tuesday is an educated guess. However, people should at least be open to the scenario where Balsillie gets his team through expansion, although this would be a few years down the road, so try not take it too literally.

A 32-team NHL with four divisions even works out in terms of scheduling. Each team plays six games vs. each divisional foe (42 games), three vs. inter-divisional opponents (24 games) and one against each inter-conference team (16 games) to make up an 82-game schedule. For argument's sake, here are possible alignments that try to maintain existing rivalries:
  • Adams Division: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton

  • Patrick Division: Atlanta, Carolina, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, N.Y. Islanders, N.Y. Rangers, Washington

  • Norris Division: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City

  • Smythe Division: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver, Las Vegas
Obviously, the NHL would probably copy the NFL and divvy up 32 teams into eight divisions of four. But the fantasy has gone this far ...

Anyway, this is not a prediction on how it might shake out, but an acknowledgement of a possible compromise. Balsillie is not going to give up. Bettman, like one of those Southern expansion teams playing the neutral zone trap back in the '90s, could just be trying to prolong the inevitable.

It's better to look at this way than to jump to conclusions about what a paid liar like Bettman says in a court filing. Sure, he might prefer the Phoenix Coyotes to move to Winnipeg instead of Southern Ontario. Taken another way, that could be on par with a man saying he'd rather be kicked in the rear end than in the groin.


Andrew Bucholtz said...

It's an interesting idea, Neate. I don't think the expansion idea is too likely at the moment, though, because it's not just Phoenix that's in trouble. Look at Tampa Bay and Atlanta to name a few; there could be problems if you run out of alternative locations for some of those franchises. I'm not opposed to the idea of a 32-team NHL, but I think they may need to try and fix their existing teams before adding new ones.

sager said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree 100% they need to try and fix the teams in trouble before expanding.

sager said...


This was intended to be in the same vein as Vancouver being a possible location for a NBA franchise, if not the Indiana Pacers. It's something that could come to the fore, no more-no less. I trust the readers to make that distinction.

sager said...

I agree 100% they need to try and fix the teams in trouble before expanding.It's good to see sportsfans move in moron-lockstep, as always. Don't ever try to think for yourself. This is more about a scenario that would a few years down the road, after they've been down many legal avenues. Did you need that spelled out?

Jason Cormier said...

Hi Nate, where are you getting your numbers for Toronto being the fourth largest metropolitan area in North America; was it from this post on the NOOF?

If so, I refer you to my post that follows: It is either the 13th biggest if you use the strict definition of the GTA or the 7th biggest if you include Hamilton, Niagara, and the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge-Guelph area.

sager said...

Fair question ... Klein said it in his post at the N.Y. Times site, that the "Greater Toronto Area, the fourth largest metropolitan region on the continent, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago." It must have stuck in my brain. I'm not perfect.

However, I am bound to go by what Klein says. He writes for the New York Times and that is — wait for it — a trusted news organization.

Jason Cormier said...

Hi Nate, after I made my post, I read the article. I should have done that first but, NY Times or not, he is mistaken.

First of all, I assume he has ignored Mexico City which is larger than New York and part of North America.

Secondly, if you read the article, you will see that he includes Buffalo in his calculation. This is a mistake on two levels.

One: If we accept Buffalo as part of the urban area (I don't but I suppose that is a subjective, though widely held, view) then we are talking about a third team in the market, not a second one. As an aside the number of Buffalo residents crossing the border to watch Hamilton will be miniscule compared to Ontario residents who watch the Sabres.

Two: After crunching the numbers, it looks like he double counted some the Buffalo numbers since a portion of their metro area is in Canada and already part of the greater Golden Horsehoe area.

In the end, it's a minor issue but the NYT was lazy with this stat and you can be sure it will be taken as gospel by many of the "make it seven" crowd.

sager said...

Hi Jason,

I should have done more research on that point, or at least clarified it was according to Klein. My mistake.

I know when I read it I figured the other 3 were Chicago, New York and L.A., even though I know how big Mexico City is ... thing is, I was in hockey mode, so you can understand why I would overlook that.

Anyway, I'll go with "top 10," split the difference between seventh and 13th.

Jason Cormier said...


We could always go with largest market of hockey fans in North America.

sager said...

Then you get all the, "Toronto fans are Leafs fans, not hockey fans," people comin' out the woodwork. :-)

Jason Cormier said...

Ottawa Sports Guy said...

Quality. Pure quality.

Anonymous said...

F Bettman!!!!

Rob Pettapiece said...

I have the GTA as high as fifth or as low as tenth, depending. You can play with the numbers however you want. Of course, it doesn't matter, since four million people in Houston don't care about hockey as much as four million Greater Torontonians.

Incidentally, if Balsillie pulls this off, and moves them to K/W, could we realign the divisions to make a rivalry involving the team based in Waterloo, the team based in San Jose, the team based in Kanata, the team based in Boston, and the team based in Raleigh? That might get me watching the NHL regularly again.

sager said...

That Ottawa/Team Balsillie/San Jose/Boston/Carolina division would be hell for travel, but the beauty of it would be that half the season-ticket holders of each team probably would have lived in one of the other cities at some point.

Anonymous said...

First there based out of ottawa not kanata.Second i can not see the league having 3 ontario teams in one division.


Jason Cormier said...


They play in the former city of Kanata. It is still called Kanata by those who live there.

Ask an Ottawan who lives on Jeanne D'Arc Blvd where they live and they will likely say Orleans. Ask one who lives near the Walter Baker Sports Complex and they will say Barrhaven. Ask someone who lives near Bank and 5th and they will say the Glebe.

Kanata is simply a neighbourhood that is full of high tech jobs, thus the original comment, and home to Scotiabank Place.

Anonymous said...

When tpeople talk about the 67s they say ottawa not the glebe.