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Jeffrey Simpson

Hockey's 'crooked timber' extends beyond the sticks Add to ...

Summer, hockey's usual downtime, has nonetheless provided a steady feast of bizarre behaviour and disingenuous explanations, to say nothing of general hilarity for those with a taste for the absurd.

Monday, the head of the National Hockey League Players' Association got dumped in a palace coup without a plausible explanation. Wednesday, the ongoing saga of Jim Balsillie's attempt to force himself into the league will take another twist, when a bankruptcy judge in Phoenix rules on whether he can even bid for the money-losing Coyotes in next week's auction.

Mr. Balsillie, of Research In Motion fame, has conducted himself in a most peculiar fashion. The group he wishes to join, the NHL owners' club, has voted 26-0 against letting him become a member. It's not just a majority he has alienated, or a large majority - it's everyone. That takes some doing.

Selected leaks to obliging media, aggressive tactics by his bulldog lawyer, insults directed against other owners and an apparent determination to do things his way, rather than the league's, has turned everyone against Mr. Balsillie, and not just the owners of the Toronto and Buffalo franchises, who would naturally be apprehensive about any team near their territories. (There might be a pattern here, because Mr. Balsillie's last-minute public interjection in the Nortel sale went over badly with nearly everyone involved in the file. Some of us got taken in, and we should admit it.)

The owners' agent, commissioner Gary Bettman, is a hard man to love. Some of the owners, as individuals or front men for impersonal corporations or pension funds, have not been of unsullied virtue or singular intelligence. Others, however, are of upstanding character and good businessmen. As with most groupings, the owners constitute what philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously called the "crooked timber of humanity."

It has, therefore, taken a lack of judgment to turn off everybody in the club you wish to join. And the NHL is a sort of club, with members, rules of entry and people who enforce the rules. You might not like the rules, or some of the members, but there you are.

The NHL, at least in Canada, would be better off with a team in Southern Ontario, perhaps Hamilton. This has been Mr. Balsillie's objective in attempting to buy the Nashville Predators, the Pittsburgh Penguins and now the Coyotes. Having failed with his first two bids, he is trying to get the courts to do what the league will not.

Fans and patriots can only wish for his success, but the way he has gone about securing his objective has made that unlikely. He is left with only the Hail Mary hope that the Phoenix bankruptcy judge will award him the franchise, and that other judges will then (a) dismiss the NHL's inevitable appeal, and (b) block the league's attempt to stop him from relocating to Hamilton.

True to form, the NHL has offered a series of explanations so lacking in plausibility as to make a politician blush.

First, the league said the Coyotes were financially fine. They were not. Then, it denied lending the team money for other than minor things. Not so. Then, it said buyers - plural - were lining up to buy the team and keep it in Phoenix. Not so. Then, it said a group led by Chicago's Jerry Reinsdorf would bid and keep the team in Phoenix. Not really, because the bid was conditional on the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, where the Coyotes' arena is located, offering still more concessions.

Now the league, desperate to keep Mr. Balsillie out and save face, has entered a bid to buy and resell the team. That might eventually involve the Coyotes going to some other city, preferably in the United States, which is where the league really wants new franchises to go.

Speaking of sagas, what is to be said of the arrogant behaviour of Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators? Despite having negotiated a lucrative long-term agreement with the Senators that included a no-trade clause, he demanded a trade, but only to a list of teams he had prepared. Since Edmonton wasn't on that list, he spurned a trade there arranged by the Senators.

Having spurned two of the six Canadian franchises, Mr. Heatley now wants to play for Canada at the Olympics. It would be an outrage if he got his wish.

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