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Jeff Blair

Gretzky won't support Hamilton because it would mean taking a stand Add to ...


Jim Balsillie's bid to bring a second NHL team to Southern Ontario is no fait accompli, but it seems as if it's flushed everybody out of the bushes in my city and around the country.

In social-messaging parlance, call it a tweet to action by the BlackBerry mogul. And so far, it appears Wayne Gretzky is not one of Balsillie's followers. Shoot, he might even have Balsillie blocked.

That won't surprise the hockey cognoscenti, who have known for years that Gretzky is much more at home in Southern California or Arizona than he is in Canada, who have accepted the duality of No. 99.

They see nothing wrong in Gretzky saying on the one hand, as he did in a recent interview with writer Franz Lidz, that, "Hamilton could easily support an NHL team, and Toronto could easily support a second one," and then telling Hockey Night in Canada, as he did in February, that, "For me, it's Phoenix or bust. I've made that clear."

Accidental tourists in the sports section will no doubt be stunned that Gretzky isn't up on the courthouse steps waving the Maple Leaf and singing O Canada and marching in lockstep with Balsillie. After all, it's a short ride from the old Gretzky backyard rink in Brantford, Ont., to Hamilton's Copps Coliseum.

Others might harbour the notion that Gretzky, the Coyotes' head coach and part owner, is working feverishly behind the scenes to make this all work out in the end. Right.

Gretzky is cautious by nature - his father, Walter, was at the Toronto Blue Jays game on Tuesday and said his son had not spoken to him about the matter because he knows "I can't keep a secret" - but beyond that he's a company guy. He was unwilling to use his name and influence to affect change in the 1994 lockout while he was still playing. And if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his gang are backing an underfunded bid by Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona, well, that's good enough for Gretzky.

Even if there were no family obligations, the guess here is Gretzky would go along with Bettman.

Nobody works as hard at making himself seem tangential when a major issue crops up.

And that doesn't make him a bad guy. It just makes him Wayne - or, rather, Gretz. Many is the Canadian who would rather live among the palms and in the arid desert than put up with the cold and snow.

Many is the Canadian who would rather face one reporter after his team screwed up another NHL game than a couple dozen.

Balsillie has told people that one of the reasons he wants to move the Coyotes to Hamilton is his wife is from the city and he's starting to think about his legacy. He and his people have mentioned the magical words "waterfront redevelopment" locally and that, too, gets him some currency. Damn ... almost makes the thing seem honourable, you know?

Not that it's a completely altruistic thing. Balsillie is like every other citizen of the People's Republic of Bay and Wall Streets asking for government infrastructure money. Why waste an economic crisis?

At a time when a city that was once the home of staunch Liberal warhorses has become solidly NDP, there is a political play for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and even the federal Liberals that might also play into Balsillie's hands. Beyond that, there is little doubt that renovating Copps Coliseum and the neighbouring Convention Centre and Hamilton Place would be hugely popular with local trade unions.

Hockey? Unions? Geez, we're talking motherhood stuff, here. Brew me up a cup of Tim's ...

Even if Balsillie doesn't succeed in this particular quest, it is apparent a second NHL team in Southern Ontario is on its way.

Don't fret about the tender sensibilities of Hamiltonians. We'll handle this thing however it turns out. There is less of a desperate feeling this time - the lack of a commitment to keep the team in Hamilton forever is assuaged by the savvy understanding that if the provincial or federal governments give Balsillie money to fix up Copps, he'll look like a carpetbagger if he ever were to leave.

And those of us who live here and aren't really emotionally tied to an NHL team? We'll be cool either way, thanks.

Nothing invested. Nothing lost. We'll go back to watching someone else's team win the Stanley Cup. Kind of like No. 99's doing right now.

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