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Jim Balsillie appears to have another competitor in his bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move the NHL club to Hamilton. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
Jim Balsillie appears to have another competitor in his bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move the NHL club to Hamilton. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

Stephen Brunt

It is personal Add to ...

It's nothing personal.

On the day of what figures to be the denouement in the great battle between Gary Bettman and Jim Balsillie, it's increasingly hard to believe that's true, though both sides have said it often enough.

It is not about the personalities involved, but about the issues, they argue, about the principles, about doing the right thing - whether that's fulfilling a life-long dream by bringing a bankrupt NHL franchise to an underserved Canadian market or protecting the NHL's right to do business the way it sees fit. But would it have really come down to this - a decision by a bankruptcy court judge in Arizona with acres of earth scorched en route - if it weren't these two guys involved?

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Many, in Balsillie's shoes, would have abandoned the idea of bringing an NHL team to Hamilton long ago, having gone through the trouble and expense of trying to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, only to be headed off at the pass by Bettman both times.

Another personality type with similar goals might have believed (at least temporarily) that the NHL's governors could be charmed into making it happen, that stepping in as a dutiful money-loser for a couple of seasons would have gained sufficient grace to be allowed a piece of the Southern Ontario bonanza. Or another might have pretended, smiled the right smiles and then loaded the Preds or Pens into a moving van under the cover of darkness and dared league lawyers to try and drag them back.

Balsillie, co-CEO of Research In Motion, has a singular vision for hockey in Hamilton - though it might have been much easier to sell the league on a new locale elsewhere in the Golden Horseshoe.

He is in the habit of running his own show and of getting his way, even if it costs him a bundle (consider the futile, five-year patent fight that ended in a $600-million plus settlement and untold legal bills).

And having endured wholesale character assassination from the NHL's propaganda arm the first two times he tried to buy a team - and now having had his U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission problems brought before the court - it is impossible to believe he enters this final showdown without a chip on his shoulder.

Bettman is the paid servant of the NHL's governors, and not, as fans sometimes seem to believe, the kingpin of professional hockey. His job is to do what they tell him to do and to make them as much money as possible, though the truth is that after more than 20 years on the job, he has managed to create a significant powerbase for himself.

Whether it were Balsillie or someone else who had engineered this showdown in court (one the league could have avoided by simply facing up to the reality of hockey in Phoenix a bit earlier), Bettman would be fighting the fight.

The NHL has a tremendous amount to lose. Not just face, not just the revenues from a Southern Ontario expansion team, but also in a potential legal showdown with one of its most powerful franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs, over the issue of territorial rights.

But anyone who has watched Bettman operate lo these many years knows he doesn't take well to those who challenge him in public. And the NHL commissioner has a need to get even with his critics, whether it was crowing over the success of hockey in California when the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup, or mocking the struggling newspaper industry when he accused those who reported - with complete accuracy, it turns out - on the Coyotes' financial meltdown of practising "irresponsible journalism."

Bettman's insecure mean streak, Balsillie's hyper-competitiveness and touch of the bully, are undeniably part of the mix, right there with the ins and outs of U.S. bankruptcy and anti-trust law.

There was, and is, a deal to be made here, one that would work to the benefit of the NHL and its owners, the benefit of Balsillie, the benefit of Canadian hockey fans, and (if it's possible to put a price on it), to the benefit of the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.

Two different individuals might have played the diplomat, found that common ground, struck an agreement and sold it to their constituencies.

But, nothing personal, it couldn't ever have been this pair.

 

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