To get a clear picture of how the Toronto Maple Leafs view the potential arrival of another NHL team in their territory, it is better to look at what they do rather than what they say.
What the Leafs have done is this: charge the organizer of an exhibition game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sept. 23, 2006, at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton a fee of $150,000.
The money was paid as "indemnity charges for holding an exhibition hockey game in our franchise area," according to a letter signed by a Maple Leafs executive that concerned other such games at Copps.
Over the years, the Leafs have collected at least $325,000 in such fees.
To get this money, the Leafs did not participate in the game in any way. Indeed, the promoter had to agree not to advertise the game in the Toronto area lest it deter Maple Leafs fans from spending their money on anyone other than the storied home team.
The 2006 fee was only $10,000 less than the $160,000 the Sabres were paid to participate in the game. It is not known what the Penguins were paid, but presumably it would have been in the same ballpark as the Sabres' stipend. The game drew only 7,700 fans to Copps, which seats about 17,000 for hockey, which was not a good night for the promoter.
Officially, the Leafs have never said anything about Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie's plan to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton. They refer all inquiries to the NHL, as they did yesterday.
But if U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Redfield T. Baum decides today that the Coyotes can be moved, then the Leafs' actions show they will fight the move with all of owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment's considerable resources. The Balsillie camp said as much in declarations filed with the court.
Richard Rodier, Balsillie's Toronto lawyer, said in a document filed with the court that he believes the Leafs have told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman they have a veto under the league's constitution that allows them to block any team from setting up shop in their territory. He also told the court he believes the Leafs told Bettman they will sue the NHL if it approves any move ordered by the court and they will sue any other NHL team that plays a game against the invaders.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly did not respond to an e-mail asking if the Leafs have ever issued such threats. But if they follow through, it could make today's historic court hearing in Phoenix look like a Sunday school picnic.
The Leafs' territory is defined by the NHL as a radius of 80 kilometres from the Air Canada Centre. Hamilton's Copps Coliseum, according to mapquest.com, sits 67.75 kilometres from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The home of the Sabres, HSBC Arena, is 106.45 kilometres from Copps, which is why the Sabres have never been mentioned in the territorial-rights arguments.
Much of the legal arguments put forward on the anti-trust side of this case concern whether the Leafs or any other NHL team has a veto against any team moving into its territory. Balsillie's lawyers argue there is one and it is a violation of anti-trust law because such a veto would ensure the Leafs operate as a monopoly.
Rodier cited the last two sentences of Article 4.3 of the NHL constitution as proof of a veto. The last sentence reads: "No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member, without the written consent of such member."
The NHL argues, as it has in the past, that there is no veto. It offers up Article VI of the constitution, which says the commissioner has the right to interpret the constitution any way he likes, without appeal.
This argument won over the Canadian Competition Bureau, which decided a couple of years ago that there was no veto and the NHL was not a monopoly. But that was not an official ruling, only what was called a "technical backgrounder" that can be revisited and revised.
Bettman and the NHL governors were infuriated two years ago, when news of Balsillie's attempt to buy and move the Nashville Predators broke on the same day as the NHL awards and overshadowed a feel-good night. If both the Detroit Red Wings and Balsillie win today, then the court decision will likely sweep the Wings' second consecutive Stanley Cup title to also-ran status.
And won't that put Balsillie's NHL welcome into a nuclear deep freeze?