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Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. (Kaz Novak)
Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. (Kaz Novak)

Stephen Brunt

With NHL, it's always bad news for Hamilton Add to ...

So is that all there is?

Maybe not. Jim Balsillie, as he has made eminently clear during his pursuit of a National Hockey League franchise - heck, as he made eminently clear fighting a quixotic battle over patent infringement that wound up costing him hundreds of millions of dollars - is not a man who is discouraged easily.

But there will now have to be at least one more twist in the road.

Last night, Judge Redfield T. Baum, a jurist better known to Canadians now than Sonia Sotomayor, turned down Mr. Balsillie's motion to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.

Interpreting his comments during the court proceedings, Judge Baum has been honestly torn by this case. On one hand, he has a bankrupt business that seems to have precious little future in the Phoenix area, and for which there seems no other serious bidders who might satisfy the creditors.

On the other, in order to give Mr. Balsillie what he wanted - the right to buy the team and move it to another country, paying off all of those left holding, but breaking, a lease in Glendale and running roughshod over the wishes of the National Hockey League's hierarchy - Judge Baum would have been forced to venture into territory in which he was clearly uncomfortable.

There is surely a legal case to be made here regarding anti-trust and territorial rights and indemnification and the legality of the NHL's bylaws, but as of now, it appears that case can't be made in a bankruptcy court in Arizona.

Which leaves the NHL, as of Monday evening, still in control of the destiny of a franchise that just about everyone, from the head of the National Hockey League Players' Association on down, believes is a dead issue in its current location. The Phoenix Coyotes have effectively been for sale since last summer, with no takers - which is why their owner Jerry Moyes opted for bankruptcy and Mr. Balsillie in the first place. He saw his equity evaporating, and his partners in the NHL about to throw him under the bus.

Anyone who believes differently, who thinks that the franchise has a future in Glendale, ought to call commissioner Gary Bettman right now. There's a deal to be made - it's a buyer's market! - though it's hard to imagine who would step forward to assume the long-term lease in Glendale, and the inevitable, massive annual losses that would seem to entail.

All of which would suggest that, one way or another, the NHL is going to have to work out a deal with someone: who will buy the team, pay lip service to the idea of making hockey work in Phoenix, and then relocate somewhere more palatable to the league's current interests.

In the meantime, with this process having demonstrated more than ever the value of a second team in Southern Ontario, it's also hard to imagine that the league governors won't try to exploit that pent-up demand for their own enrichment - the Toronto Maple Leafs be damned. There is simply too much money to ignore, and if it is framed as an expansion opportunity, they won't even have to share it with the players.

Of course, that's probably bad news for Hamilton. When it comes to the NHL, it's always bad news for Hamilton.

Though the only thing close to an NHL-ready rink is located there, the league doesn't want any part of the city, and a true second Toronto team would obviously be worth more.

Which leaves Mr. Balsillie exactly where?

Probably exploring his next legal avenue. Probably hovering over the Coyotes' carcass still, assuming that offers for the team in any context will be few and far between. Probably refusing to surrender, because surrender isn't what he does.

Those who prefer a more rational, hard-edged approach will argue - not without reason - that all of this has been the case of a New York-based entertainment company, with 30 franchises spread out across North America, protecting its own interests, protecting the right to do business as it sees fit, and inevitably winning in court.

But there is also a cultural and emotional component. Canadians, historically, have refused to view the NHL in those terms - otherwise what was the Gretzky trade to Los Angeles in 1988 but a simple exchange of commodity for cash? They believe that, on some level, the game is still theirs, which is why Mr. Balsillie's fight, his public relations campaign, the whole idea of Make It Seven, struck such a chord.

Naive, perhaps, and in the end, simply being set up for disappointment, but on some fundamental level, that's also us.

And knowing the track record, knowing the principle, here's betting that it's not quite over yet.

 

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