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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Graham Hughes)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Graham Hughes)

Stephen Brunt

Bettman meets his match Add to ...

As he stands on a tiny spit of land with the water rising all around him, Gary Bettman must now understand his great miscalculations.

Taking on a single-minded, driven, hyper-competitive billionaire in a battle that revolves around cash, lawyers and resolve was perhaps unwise.

Believing that, after outflanking him once, outflanking him twice - the second time with the aid of the now incarcerated William (Boots) Del Biaggio - Jim Balsillie would simply pack his duffel bag and head back to Waterloo, Ont., was naive in the extreme.

Worrying more about image than substance, pretending that all was well in Phoenix while allowing the door of bankruptcy to swing wide open, was a massive tactical error. And now it all comes down to a single judge in a single jurisdiction given ever-diminishing options, his skepticism naturally high having been told several stories that simply weren't true.

Bettman and the NHL may still carry the day, Pyrrhic as that victory will seem, given the smoking crater that is the Phoenix Coyotes. Judge Redfield T. Baum's queasiness about wading into the sport's internal workings may yet cause him to dismiss Balsillie outright as a potential bidder for the bankrupt franchise.

But that's the only winning formula left now for the league - and even that will cost each and every owner a bundle.

The NHL can no longer cast itself as the saviour of hockey in Arizona or the best hope for the poor taxpayers of Glendale, who it is clear are going to lose their team and lose all kinds of money no matter what the outcome (though if Balsillie triumphs, at least they'll be able to cash a big fat cheque to help ease their pain).

Bettman can no longer assert, as he did under oath, that there would be a vigorous bidding war for the franchise, that other groups were lining up to buy the team and keep it right where it is. Now that Ice Edge has predictably evaporated - Wayne Gretzky's anti-Midas touch when it comes to ownership and potential ownership continues - you wonder just who the commissioner thought he was fooling, or how desperate he must have been to buy time.

And as for the creditors, who are Baum's primary concern, whether or not Jerry Moyes is ruled to be among them, it's hard to imagine that by the time the auction is finished they'll be better compensated by the NHL's final offer than they will be by Balsillie's.

As for the condemnation of Balsillie's character, and the NHL governors' unanimous decision to reject him as a prospective owner, the fact that (according to documents filed with the court) they did so more than a month after deciding to launch their own bid for the franchise strongly suggests mixed motives, if not an outright conflict of interest.

Given that the ownership review process would be one example of how the NHL plays by its own rules, and given that the league is arguing before the court that the sanctity of those rules is paramount, you'd think that might cause Baum some discomfort.

Still, trying to read his mind is a mug's game. And whatever he decides, there is the promise/threat of more litigation, of appeals to the highest courts. Puck drop in Hamilton … or Kansas City … or Las Vegas … is a long way away. The only thing that's certain right now is that plenty of tickets are still available for a season (or half-season) in Glendale. Just not sure who's going to be playing, who's going to be behind the bench or who's going to be paying their salaries.

But strip away, for a moment, all of the emotional and cultural baggage. Forget about what happened to the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques, or Hamilton's many heartbreaking trips to the NHL altar. Don't mention Make It Seven, or launch into a discussion of which places "deserve" hockey teams and which don't.

Boil this one down to what it is, what it always has been in large part, a contest of power and money and smarts and ego.

In that, it has been a mismatch.

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