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RIMs Jim Balsille at the Columbia Ice Fields Arena at the University of Waterloo where he plays shinny hockey with a group of friends. Balsillie has made headlines one more time following his latest and controversial offer to purchase the NHLs financially strapped Phoenix Coyotes. (Photo by Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)
RIMs Jim Balsille at the Columbia Ice Fields Arena at the University of Waterloo where he plays shinny hockey with a group of friends. Balsillie has made headlines one more time following his latest and controversial offer to purchase the NHLs financially strapped Phoenix Coyotes. (Photo by Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)

Stephen Brunt

Balsillie NHL's lone wolf Add to ...

Jim Balsillie needed an insurrection. He didn't get it. And that may be the final straw.

No, his dream is not quite dead yet. The fate of the Phoenix Coyotes remains in the hands of an Arizona bankruptcy judge and not the NHL's board of governors. Several legal twists and turns remain.

The Jerry Reinsdorf bid for the franchise isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, and the only alternative - never mind Gary Bettman's sworn affidavit suggesting that other bidders were lining up - is an expression of interest that requires finding a pot of gold in Saskatoon.

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So there is still the possibility that Balsillie's strategy of winning the team through the courts and moving it to Hamilton could bear fruit, but it's the longest shot on the board right now.

That's because the other part of Balsillie's game plan - not the very public effort to win Canadian hockey fans' hearts and minds, but the discreet effort to bring NHL owners onside - has clearly been a failure.

The surprise wasn't that the governors on Wednesday unanimously rejected Balsillie's official application to become an NHL owner. That was like an "election" in a dictatorship - you didn't really need to tally the ballots to know what the outcome would be. It was a sham process, designed to provide legal cover on both sides - Balsillie had to go through the motions of applying and the league had to go through the motions of suggesting it was following its own rules before giving him the bum's rush.

What was revealing was who led the attack on Balsillie behind closed doors.

George Gillett, the soon-to-be-former owner of the Montreal Canadiens, is not one of Gary Bettman's lap dogs, is not part of the long-standing inner circle that forms the commissioner's power base. He is not wedded to ancient beliefs about extending the sport's "footprint" into non-traditional American markets in order to attract phantom, big-time television deals.

He is, above all, a pragmatist, a deal-maker by nature, whose own critical view of the post-lockout NHL and the way wealthy franchises (like his) were forced to prop up hopeless franchises (like the Coyotes) apparently in perpetuity, is rooted firmly in reality.

Solutions, even radical solutions like contraction, he was willing to consider. And while the league hierarchy did its best to demonize Balsillie following the Nashville fiasco, Gillett - as would eventually be made public - was more than happy to talk to him, to get to know him, to feel him out regarding his plans and to be forthright about his own situation in Montreal.

In Montreal, a confluence of personal and outside financial issues eventually left Gillett with no choice but to put the Habs on the block.

Gillett wasn't the only owner who talked to Balsillie in private. Balsillie reached out to a bunch of them. But however he may have charmed them, or persuaded them of the purity of his intentions, or made the case that his scheme would in the end put more money in their pockets, they were still being asked to make a difficult choice: to be with Balsillie, to be sympathetic to his cause, meant directly challenging the commissioner and his hard-core loyalists. The Bettman-Balsillie animus wasn't just personal - Bettman understood all too well that even considering a team in Hamilton would open up a legal can of worms for the league - but there was certainly no middle ground. To listen to Balsillie, to side with Balsillie, was to challenge Gary Bettman directly.

What Balsillie had to hope for, really, was something close to a coup.

There are other reasons why Gillett may have gone after Balsillie - notably the fact that, following one of their meetings, an embarrassing story broke about the Canadiens being for sale, and coincidental to that, Montreal's centennial season turned into one long nosedive.

But the point is, somewhere along the line, Balsillie lost him. He lost anyone else who might have been willing to stand up, challenge the commissioner, and take his side. The revolution never happened.

So now he's on his own, which is a lonely place to be.



 

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