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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talks during a news conference before the NHL game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks in Glendale, Arizona March 8, 2011. (RICK SCUTERI)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talks during a news conference before the NHL game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks in Glendale, Arizona March 8, 2011. (RICK SCUTERI)

STEPHEN BRUNT

Bettman has no Plan B for Phoenix Add to ...

Hard to imagine that was really worth the airfare from New York to Phoenix.

Last night, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, accompanied by his right-hand man, Bill Daly, completed what must have been a long and tiring day, addressing the press at the Jobing.com Arena in advance of the Phoenix Coyotes game against the Vancouver Canucks.

It is a safe bet that far more people were hanging on his words in Winnipeg - where they watched via a live Internet feed, at least until it crashed - than in the Valley of the Sun, where the Coyotes' death throes have caught the imagination only of the team's modest number of hardcore supporters, and of those who make a fetish of monitoring government waste.

The latter group, under the banner of the Goldwater Institute, received virtually all of the commissioner's attention Tuesday.

In effect, he called them out. He said it was all their fault that the City of Glendale's $116-million (U.S.) municipal bond issue, designed to underwrite the purchase of the Coyotes by Matthew Hulsizer, has so far been a miserable failure.

He implied in veiled fashion that the Institute's motives might be less than pure. He came close to suggesting a conspiracy. He asked that it step away and stop messing around forthwith - and if it didn't, well then the gloves will really come off, but only after the Coyotes are long gone.

For a group of ideologues and zealots, heretofore obscure to even many Arizonans, what a day, what a glorious day.

A commissioner comes almost the entire way across the country to single them out, to declare war, even as they are standing on what they firmly believe is a point of principle and a point of law.

And at the same time, that commissioner acknowledges there is nothing he can do to thaw the bond market, that there is no plan B, no alternate strategy. If Goldwater Institute simply holds its ground and stays the course - maybe for days, maybe for weeks, at most for a couple of months - it can kill the deal without even filing a lawsuit, because soon enough either Hulsizer (who certainly seemed to be losing his nerve Tuesday) or the NHL, or both, is going to have to fish or cut bait.

Now what would possibly compel the GWI to do otherwise - given it refused even to meet with Bettman, unless he agreed to a session open to the press and public? (… And wouldn't that be something.)

A sudden loss of nerve? If it backed down now in the face of Glendale's threatened lawsuit, the group might as well turn out the lights and turn Senator Barry's picture to the wall.

A sudden change of heart? Did we mention that these are ideologues?

It would seem they have not much to lose here and plenty to gain in terms of their self-styled mission as the righteous enemies of big government.

Bettman looked weak Tuesday. He looked like someone who was playing his last card, trying to save face, trying to set up a future speech in which he can claim he did everything he could to keep the Coyotes right where they were.

But it isn't public relations that ought to be his concern right now. The NHL's loyal fans won't suffer any angst if the Coyotes do indeed move back to Manitoba. A significant portion - surely a majority, given how the game's popularity is strongest in traditional markets - would see it as the righting of a historical wrong.

The folks Bettman will have sway with his great powers of persuasion are his employers, the owners. He needs to come up with a story to explain how, following the Coyotes bankruptcy, the Jim Balsillie incursion, the season of league ownership, the accumulation of losses, and the revelation of Hulsizer as saviour thanks to that remarkably generous offer from Glendale, the whole thing could hit the rocks because a small band of true believers sent out a few letters and press releases, filed some access to information requests, wouldn't promise not to sue, and refused to be bullied off their position.

It still looks like Winnipeg's gain in the end, even if the governors will return there with gritted teeth.

But the whole thing, the whole process … it just doesn't seem very big league, does it?

 

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