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Hockey Conflict of interest behind MLSE’s decision to abstain from NHL vote

George Cope, president and CEO of Bell Canada, left,  MLSE Chairman Larry Tanenbaum, centre, and Nadir Mohamed President and CEO of Rogers Communications hold up Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies jerseys following a press conference in Toronto on Friday December 9, 2011.

The Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs abstained from this week's NHL board of governors' vote to approve the new $5.2-billion contract for Canadian television and multimedia broadcast rights with Rogers Communications Inc. due to an obvious conflict of interest – not because of a face-saving intervention by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chairman Larry Tanenbaum did not vote because the Maple Leafs' parent company is co-owned by Rogers and BCE Inc., with each holding a 37.5-per-cent share. It was deemed not proper for MLSE to vote to approve an NHL deal of benefit to one of its owners.

Multiple sources with MLSE and the NHL said Tanenbaum, who owns the remaining 25 per cent of MLSE, acted on the advice of his lawyer and fellow MLSE board member, Dale Lastman, and Bettman did not play a role in the decision.

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A report on the Toronto Star's website said tension between Rogers and BCE was the reason Tanenbaum abstained from the vote. The report implied Tanenbaum may have felt pressure to vote against the new contract, but Bettman stepped in and persuaded him to abstain.

The governors' vote was officially registered as 29-0 in favour of the deal, which takes effect next season and gives Rogers control of broadcasting the NHL in Canada and shuts BCE's network, TSN, out of the national picture.

However, sources with the NHL and MLSE, who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the corporate relationships between the various parties, said the bitterness between BCE and Rogers had nothing to do with the abstention.

Bettman did not have to step in to prevent a potentially embarrassing "no" vote from the Maple Leafs because Tanenbaum had already determined his course of action.

While this particular issue concerned nothing more complicated than doing what was right from a legal standpoint, the relationship between Rogers and BCE is coming under increasing scrutiny after the latter lost the NHL contract to Rogers.

There has already been friction over the January firing of Brian Burke as president and general manager of the Maple Leafs, and there will be more ahead as some of the regional-rights deals with a few of the Canadian NHL teams expire in the coming months.

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