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Stephen Brunt

The franchise that carries a big stick Add to ...

So there it is, the unseen hand …

From the beginning, it has been tempting for those watching from the sidelines to paint the great struggle for the Phoenix Coyotes as a mano-a-mano battle between Jim Balsillie and Gary Bettman, or at least Balsillie versus the unified ruling powers of the NHL.

But the truth is, despite repeated assurances from the commissioner and his deputy that it wasn't the case, there has always been another force in play.

The Toronto Maple Leafs speak softly (mostly not at all, at least for public consumption), but as the sport's wealthiest franchise, they carry a big stick.

They believe the NHL constitution grants them exclusive rights to their territory and are willing to fight a legal war to protect it, even if that means taking on the very league of which they are a member.

All of that is apparent in a lawyers' letter filed before the Phoenix bankruptcy court late Friday night, in which the Leafs make their position crystal clear.

The issue dates back to the fall of 2006, when the league told the Canadian Competition Bureau that a team could be relocated into the territory of an existing club through a simple majority vote of the governors.

In the letter filed Friday, the Leafs' legal representative, David E. Massengill of Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, begged to differ.

"The Toronto Maple Leafs do not agree that a relocation of another club into their home territory would be subject to a majority vote," Massengill writes. "They continue to believe that a unanimous vote would be required before a team could be relocated into their home territory."

In other words, the Leafs maintain that they retain veto power over any attempt to move a team into the geographic area described in the NHL's constitution, which in their case includes Hamilton.

And if the league tried to force the issue …

"The Maple Leafs they (sic) reserve all rights to take whatever actions are necessary to protect their exclusive rights to their home territory."

In 2008, the Competition Bureau decided it saw nothing wrong with the way the NHL had rebuffed Balsillie, just as long as there wasn't a veto in play. If the test was a simple majority vote, the league wouldn't appear to be operating solely in the interest of preserving the monopoly rights enjoyed by a single franchise.

The letter from the Leafs' lawyers paints a rather different picture.

So there's the bind the commissioner has been in since the beginning of this drama, when he welcomed Balsillie with great fanfare as the new owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to realize that that team might be bound for a place that it just couldn't go, at least not without setting off an embarrassing and financially crippling legal war that might well wind up with the whole concept of territorial rights declared null and void.

It would explain why the league has gone to such lengths to demonize Balsillie, painting him as unfit for NHL ownership. It would also fit right in with conspiracy theories dating back to at least the expansion derby of 1990, when a Hamilton bid underwritten by Tim Hortons mogul Ron Joyce was beaten out at the finish line by an Ottawa bid underwritten largely by thin air. All kinds of explanations were offered as to why the NHL walked away from an apparently sure thing, but the simplest is almost certainly the right one: The Leafs (and no doubt the Buffalo Sabres, who also make a territorial claim to Hamilton) simply said no.

Then there's the story circulating in some circles now that if the NHL beats back Balsillie's challenge in Phoenix, the Coyotes are still bound for Southern Ontario in the end, because the league can't pass up such a lucrative market.

Think there's any price the Leafs would accept in return for what they believe is their unquestioned right? Think they would sacrifice exclusivity in the best hockey market in North America for, what, the greater good of hockey, Canada and their partners in the NHL? Think they would shy away from litigation?

Knowing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, knowing what they believe their legal position to be, knowing how the company has thrived as the only game in town, ask yourself: Why would they shy away?

 

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