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Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference prior to the start of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at the Renaissance Center on Saturday in Detroit. (Harry How/2009 Getty Images)
Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference prior to the start of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals at the Renaissance Center on Saturday in Detroit. (Harry How/2009 Getty Images)

Jeff Blair

Commissioner's creativity to be tested Add to ...

Truth be told, the courtroom of Judge Redfield T. Baum never seemed to be a place where one of the basic tenets of North American professional sports would be knocked down.

And so it is that in handing Jim Balsillie's bid for a second NHL team in Southern Ontario a setback - in the very least, ruling in favour of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's indeterminate timeline rather than Balsillie's - Baum administered little more than a slap on the hand to the notion that pro leagues have a right to control the allocation of franchises.

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As dismissive as he was of the notion that leagues are materially damaged "when one of its members makes a quick or unapproved move" - he struggled, he said, "with the assertion that granting the motion would 'wreak havoc' on pro sports" - Baum also said: "Pro sports franchise-movement restrictions are not invalid" and that the "mere existence of terms and conditions for franchise relocation cannot violate antitrust law."

In other words, if carefully applied, relocation rules are acceptable.

"I think it will probably lead to a sigh of relief from the other leagues," said Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, "but they won't be out celebrating, they had a lot to lose here."

Reaction from Major League Baseball, which enjoys an antitrust exemption that many have deemed archaic, was measured.

"We are pleased with the ruling thus far and believe that the league must play a critical role in determining ownership and location of franchises," Bob DuPuy, MLB president and chief operating officer, wrote in an e-mail.

MLB, the NFL and NBA all filed briefs supporting the NHL. Only baseball operates with an antitrust exemption, but it is jealously protective against anything that hints it might be chipped away (which is why baseball asks "how high" whenever U.S. Congress says "jump," as was the case with steroids).

It is easy to poke fun at baseball commissioner Bud Selig for his acrobatics whenever Congress comes calling, the way he does his doddering-uncle-who-is-sly-as-a-fox thing whenever he's presented with a crisis. But think about what is happening to Bettman and compare it to how Selig dealt with the Montreal Expos crisis.

After threats to contract the Expos and Minnesota Twins brought about a threat of legal action from Expos majority owner Jeffrey Loria, Selig instead managed to pull this lever and that lever and, before you knew it, Loria owned the Florida Marlins, John Henry owned the Boston Red Sox (both would later win World Series) and baseball operated the Expos both in Montreal and in Washington, D.C., where it now has a huge mess on its hands - but a mess taking place in a new ballpark.

Oh, yes, as for the Twins? They'll open a new park, too, next year.

Baseball's economics were not as abysmal back in the early 2000s as the NHL's current financial picture.

Could it be that one of the reasons Bettman's back was up so much in this case is he knows he will need to organize some kind of similar deckchair rearranging? Could Bettman be hatching a plan to move multiple teams in an orderly fashion with the second team in Southern Ontario the ultimate prize?

If that's the case, then what Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes did, effectively, was sign off on the rights to Southern Ontario when he struck up an agreement with a person he knew wanted to move the team to that region.

If that second team in the most underserved hockey market on the planet is the prize what, then, is Phoenix?

We'll find out. It will be a test less of Bettman's leadership than his, um, creativity.

People close to Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf say the chances of him making a bid for the Coyotes went up exponentially with the judge's ruling on Monday. But Reinsdorf, described by a baseball source as being friends with Moyes and committed to the region "more than you'd think," wants as much of the work as possible done out of the limelight.

And as the owner of the White Sox and Selig's right-hand man for so many years on baseball franchise relocation, he's seen how this can be done.

But it takes time and a delicate touch.

Bettman now has the first commodity. Whether he possesses the second is anybody's guess.

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