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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Graham Hughes)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Graham Hughes)

Stephen Brunt

Coyotes' pothole-filled path Add to ...

So it is finished, in time for the first puck drop, as promised.

Jim Balsillie will not win the Phoenix Coyotes in bankruptcy court, because in the end Judge Redfield Baum was unwilling to go where he would have had to go to make that happen.

Folksy to the end, Baum referred yesterday in his judgment to "the old adages about closing the barn door after the horse is long gone and how do you un-ring the bell. The obvious refrain to the first adage is 'it's too late,' and to the second, 'you can't.' "

He was alluding to what could happen if he had waded deeply into the legality of the NHL's bylaws, decided they didn't pass muster, awarded the Coyotes to Balsillie, the highest bidder, and then saw that decision overturned on appeal after the team had moved to Hamilton.

What he implied, as well, was that as long as there was another simpler, cleaner solution available for the creditors, he'd opt for the path of least resistance. The NHL's own bid was also rejected, but it's easily fixable - especially if the league is willing to throw a few crumbs to Jerry Moyes and Wayne Gretzky. Hard to imagine that won't happen.

Attribute whatever motives you like to Balsillie, and to a quest that has often seemed quixotic. His singular desire, to put an NHL team in Copps Coliseum, was something the league couldn't live with, almost certainly for the reason Balsillie suggested - the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres enjoy a perhaps-illegal veto right over the territory, and were disinclined to surrender that, just as the league was disinclined to set off an internal war of litigation.

He seemed to relish the fight, in Pittsburgh and Nashville and Phoenix. He was willing to invest enormous resources in a war that for weeks seemed likely he would lose.

Call Balsillie obsessive, or bullheaded, or deluded - you certainly wouldn't be the first.

Or as many Canadians have over the past few months, call him a patriot, who put his money where his heart is.

Even those absolutely cynical about Balsillie's motives and the Make It Seven campaign have to acknowledge that his quest tapped into some deeply held feelings in this country. The Coyotes bankruptcy played out in the team's hometown as some minor curiosity - as much a local political story as a sports/culture story - but on this side of the border it was followed with nearly the same passion, the same kind of rooting interests, as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

Canadians have long blurred the line between hockey, the game, an undeniable component of national identity, and the NHL.

The NHL is a New York-based entertainment concern that even in the good old days was based two-thirds in the United States.

(Not so long ago, the NHL attempted to exploit that same sentiment when it was seeking federal government subsidies for then-struggling Canadian franchises. In the end saner heads prevailed.)

That's where the part about which places "deserved" an NHL team and which didn't came in. But there is also something else in play here. What Balsillie's court action revealed, along with the utter failure of the Coyotes franchise in Arizona, was the growing disconnect between Gary Bettman's NHL and the sport's core constituency in this country.

It has been more than 20 years since Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings, but the simmering anger here about what is perceived as a lost birthright - as teams fled Quebec City and Winnipeg, while popping up in all kinds of exotic, non-hockey climes - remains.

Bettman, the NHL commissioner, who is not one of us, who can never credibly play the sport's beneficent custodian, became the face of that expansion strategy and the focus of that resentment. Balsillie skillfully cast him as the cartoon villain of the piece, and the crowd didn't need to be told twice when to start hissing.

In the end, the "bad guy" won - and now he has the near-impossible task of cleaning up a remarkable mess, not just in Phoenix, but among the other franchises that are floundering, that are one or two steps away from heading down the same path in places where the game doesn't run deep, in what is still a fragile economy.

But putting those pieces together may be easier than restoring his and his league's credibility in the country that - though the commissioner always denies it - drives the NHL business.

Canadians will see that forlorn arena in Hamilton, they'll see all of those empty seats in Arizona, they'll hear yet another farfetched scheme to sell hockey there, or in Kansas City or in Las Vegas … and they won't soon forget.

 

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