Why does Gary Bettman love non-traditional hockey markets and crooks and hate Canada, Winnipeg and Jim Balsillie?

ST. PAUL, MINN. – For years, we’ve been suggesting, quite loudly at times, that the National Hockey League’s decision to turn the southern United States into a hockey Mecca has failed miserably.

Sports fans in Tampa, South Florida, Atlanta, Nashville and Phoenix have all but rejected the game. Crowds are small (on most nights the rinks are barely half full), there are few actual local hockey players in the communities and television ratings for the sport are miniscule.

Despite the NHL’s best efforts to force-feed the game to these folks, the people of the south really don’t like it that much. As a result, owners are losing bags full of money while beautiful state-of-the-art buildings sit empty — and very few people care. 

So why wouldn’t a league commissioner facing ownership woes, markets that are lukewarm to the game — at best — and an economy still on the slide, not look to greener pastures for some relief?

I guess, because NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is so full of his own pride that he has no desire to give up on a plan that is now, without fear of argument, a monumental failure.

These past few weeks, we have watched as the NHL started out looking foolish and then got caught in a lie. All because (a) the hockey team in Phoenix, Ariz., is and always has been a disaster and (b) Bettman must make the southern U.S. experiment a success.

In early May, Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was a sad day for the NHL, a league that had argued for years that there were no problems in Phoenix.

However, by our calculations –and with the help of reports from the Arizona Republic — we believe the Coyotes have lost more than $400 million since being yanked out of Winnipeg and shipped to the desert in 1996.

What we expected to happen four or five years ago, ultimately took 13 seasons and three different ownership groups to come to pass. 

Moyes, financially crippled by a slow down in the trucking industry, his core business, filed for bankruptcy protection and then cut a deal with Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the team for an amount that will be well north of the reported $212.5 million 

Meanwhile, Balsillie has been asked to provide “debtor-in-possession” financing, meaning Balsillie provides the necessary funds to allow the team to keep operating while the bankruptcy process continues. According to our insiders in Phoenix, Balsillie’s offer is for $216.5 million and will pay off all the current creditors.

But there is a catch. If Balsillie’s offer is accepted, he intends to move the team to Southern Ontario and Bettman wants no part of that.

“The current team ownership asked that I table an offer to purchase the Coyotes and significant discussions resulted in an offer that is in the best interests of the franchise, the NHL, and the great hockey fans of Canada and Southern Ontario,” Balsillie said in a written statement.

“I am excited to move closer to bringing an NHL franchise to what I believe is one of the best un-served hockey markets in the world, Southern Ontario. A market with devoted hockey fans, a rich hockey history, a growing and diversified economy and a population of more than 7 million people.”

Not surprisingly, Bettman and his NHL mob have no desire to allow another team in Canada. In fact, after telling the international press for more than six months that the league was NOT operating the Coyotes, Bettman and his No. 2, Bill Daly, showed up in Phoenix with a lawsuit that, in part, read: “The NHL has been operating the Phoenix Coyotes hockey club since November 2008.”

In other words, “We’ve been lying like dogs for six months, but now that we don’t want this dog of a franchise moved out of that hockey hot-bed in the Arizona desert, we’ve decided to tell the truth.” Or something like that.

It has truly been a sad month for the NHL. The league is dying in the southern U.S., and it’s unlikely the Coyotes are the only team suffering financial stress, but when a guy who has lost about $200 million (plus his purchase price) on a franchise that will never, ever be profitable, the only thing the NHL will do, is strip him of his ownership tag and let him wallow in his losses, alone.

Let’s not pull any punches, here, it has become increasingly apparent that the Winnipeg Jets should NEVER have been moved to the Arizona desert in the first place. That’s not to say that, at the time, the Jets shouldn’t have been moved. With no NHL arena and no political will to build one (thanks to Gary Filmon and Susan Thompson), the Jets had to move elsewhere. There was no future in Winnipeg. It’s just that the future was not in Phoenix.

Sadly, Bettman has decided that he and only he will find the next Coyotes owner and that could, be another embarrassment for a league that, off the ice, at least, is an embarrassment almost every day.

Just to illustrate, let’s look at the history of some of Bettman’s most infamous owners.

When he took over as commissioner, one of his closest friends and supporters inside the league was Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall. McNall went to jail for fraud.

After Steven Gluckstern nearly went broke owning the New York Islanders, Bettman brought in Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar. Kumar is now serving a 12-year sentence for fraud.

Bettman also needed help after Buffalo Sabres owner Seymour Knox died in 1996, so he found cable TV magnate John Rigas. In 2002, while he was the Sabres owner, Rigas was convicted of, you guessed it, fraud. He’s still in prison.

Then there was “Bootsie.” With the Nashville Predators in bankruptcy protection, Bettman refused to sell the team to Balsillie because Balsillie wanted to move it to Canada. So Bettman went out and found a wealthy venture capitalist named William (Bootsie) Del Biaggio III. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess, but it wasn’t long before Bootsie was facing fraud charges brought on by everybody from the SEC to Luc Robitaille to Joe Montana. Bootsie hasn’t gone to jail yet, but thyere are a lot of people who would like to see him in the crow bar hotel.

Funny, isn’t it? Gary Bettman does not want Jim Balsillie to own a team, but he’s happy having felons own teams.

After 12 seasons in the desert, the Phoenix Coyotes have now lost more than $350 million and this past week, even Forbes Magazine reiterated that hockey had no future in Arizona. And while it might have no future in Winnipeg, it should be moved to a hockey market.

Look, I’ll admit that all of those people who believe Winnipeg still does not have a suitable NHL arena, does not have enough corporate backing and does not have a large enough fan base are probably right. But I will also say that because the best gate the Coyotes have all year is the exhibition game they play at the MTS Centre in September, it’s probably time the Phoenix Coyotes returned to their roots and became the Winnipeg Jets again.

Unless, of course, Gary Bettman finally comes to his senses and allows Jim Balsillie to buy a team and move it to Ontario. That wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

  • southontariocanuk

    Great write up Scott, i always thought being in Canada that maybe Gary B is a better businesman than a hockey fan, i was willing to give him that but after having read your write up i am sorry to say his business sense is dismal at best. Why doesn’t this simple common sense get into Gary and the boards head. Every team losing money is money going out of NHL. They may not like it but it would make more financial and economic sense in today’s economy to have a working NHL team than a team thats stuck in the wrong place for no other reason than ones personal ego.
    If Gary could do one thing to add to his legacy of failed ideas, he could redeem himself by moving the Coyotes to southern ontario and in doing so agree that he might have been wrong and i am sure the new owner with his deep pocket will help NHL stay afloat atleast for a while.
    I personally don’t think that Hamilton could support a profitable team but atleast the new owner is willing to spend upwards of 200 million to try it out, what can i say !
    best wishes.