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Monday, May 18, 2009

Bettman's Cloak and Dagger in the Desert

It's quite amazing what this hurricane of scheisse that is the Phoenix Coyotes and Jim Balsillie Dance has done for the appearance of Gary Bettman the commissioner.

To the folks in Canada, he solidifies his position as the most hated man in the country by continuing to apparently deny Canada their seventh professional hockey team. Never mind that 15 years ago Canada used to have eight, that's beside the point here. Canada wants to bring a seventh team back "home" and Jim Balsillie is their cult leader at the helm.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not against Canada getting another team or two - I want it to happen and I want it to happen badly. My issue is with Jim Balsillie going about things the absolute wrong way to make it happen. That's all. I think Jim Balsillie would be the most fun owner to join the "club" in a long, long time and would help draw more attention to the league and for good reasons.

I maintained a couple of weeks ago when this story broke that there was something really wrong with how things broke down with the situation in Phoenix and while onwer Jerry Moyes being desperate to get out of owning an NHL team that's bleeding money is part of that and Jim Balsillie looking to grossly overpay for a team and move them back to his home is key here, there are other parts to this story that aren't getting the airtime or notice and guess who that all falls on?

That's right: Herr Bettman.

Who am I not going to take issue with here are the folks in Phoenix who are the tried and true fans of this team and are caught in the middle of this mess like kids in a divorce settlement. There's only one way the kids really win out here and that's if their parents can reconcile and get a solution worked out and that doesn't appear to be on the horizon.

After all, when you're a fan in this situation you're completely helpless and you have to hope that a solution that works well for you can be had. Let's face it, this is an ugly and dire situation in Phoenix and a team that loses this much money isn't marketable to other owners in it's current location and a solution to make money has to be found to be able to pawn it off to some other sucker, I mean owner.

What sucks about this situation for the fans in Phoenix is that their hero is also the guy looking to save his own skin and why he's operating a sick sort of cloak and dagger operation.

80s movie reference so deep Dennis Miller is at a loss for words.

Leave it to Gary Bettman to play the part of the parent who bad-mouths the other parent to the kids to show how much he loves them while saying things to his attorney (PDF), in this case Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, that contradict those sentiments completely.

It would figure that Bettman would manage to find a way to drag fans that had their team run away from them as part of the Great Southern NHL Manifest Destiny and get them all excited all over again all in a means to save his own skin while chapping the ass of the guy that's looking to fork over nearly $100 million dollars more than what's being asked of others for a team that's been losing $30-$40 million a year.

It would also make sense that Bettman would make sure to keep it a big secret that the NHL has been in control of the Coyotes since November 2008 while it sniffed around to find other potential owners of the club.

Meanwhile, in this story from AZCentral.com dated April 29th, the Coyotes denied that the NHL was in control and that everything else was just fine. Well who in the world would ask them to stay hush-hush about this because it might hurt the prospect of finding new buyers for the team?

Oh, right.

Look at this quote, it's amazing considering that it would just be days later the truth would be revealed.

Coyotes President Doug Moss refuted that report late Wednesday night, saying the league has not assumed control of the Coyotes.

"We are not reporting to the league," he said. "We report to (owner) Jerry Moyes. I'm dealing with things in my area, the business side, and Donnie (General Manager Don Maloney) is dealing with the hockey side.

"It's business as usual. He's preparing for the draft. I'm preparing for next year on marketing and sales."

This is stunning that a team could just spin the tires in the mud like this. This portrays the Coyotes management acting like the Wizard of Oz after they've looked behind the curtain.

This means that since November, since the second month of the season, the NHL has been pulling the strings of the Coyotes, a team that wasn't fully out of the playoff hunt until there was about a month left to go in the season, you know, around the trade deadline when Phoenix started lopping off valuable baubles like Olli Jokinen and Derek Morris.

The catch here is that Coyotes GM Don Maloney isn't a sham of a general manager and was able to get a nice return or else everyone's red flags would be waving all over the place, especially after how well Olli Jokinen and Derek Morris worked out for the Flames and Rangers respectively. It still doesn't sit well with me that a team that was still within a distant shot of the final playoff spot decided to pack it in rather than empty both barrels and go for the playoffs.

It's all water under the bridge now and Phoenix will help load the youth coffers in the draft yet again, something that a smart and wealthy person will recognize with the Coyotes. Something that one disturbingly wealthy Canadian has already recognized and is willing to throw money at anything possible to bring his team home.

If I'm on the board of governors and I've got some wild-eyed Canadian crazy man who is busy sponsoring just about everything that he can on the United States network that covers the NHL (that being NBC) and even starting up websites like Make It Seven to serve as the PR mouth of his operation... Isn't that the kind of attention-getting guy you want to have on your side rather than working against you?

Instead, the NHL chooses to look at Balsillie as an enemy combatant looking to horn in on their Good Time Fun Club any way that he can. Balsillie thinks that money can buy his way in and the owners tell him to get lost, meanwhile Bettman operates behind the scenes to try and play the role as Savior of the Coyotes meanwhile coming up with a contingency plan that finds a way to stick it to Balsillie and still find no one interested in buying the team to even move them to Winnipeg or Kansas City or anywhere else.

Well, maybe Jerry Bruckheimer can be convinced to bring them to Las Vegas for that other AEG tie-in, but that's just an even goofier side-plot.

Is this really how things operate in the big grown-up world of professional sports? Amazing.

What's hilarious here is how the public relations game played itself out from the get-go. Balsillie rides in to save the day for Jerry Moyes and his failing and bankrupt empire and Balsillie is set to ride off to Canada.

Meanwhile Bettman and gang step in to say that's not going to happen (and legally that's absolutely correct) and rather than be completely upfront about the situation in Phoenix all along, the league says all is well and that everyone will stay the same. And yet, all along, Bettman is searching around for someone to swoop in for the save (namely Jerry Reinsdorf) and keep the team in Phoenix so he doesn't suffer an epic PR hit for taking a team out of Canada and moving them to the desert where they ultimately failed and then had to tuck tail, literally, to move back to Canada.

Got all that? I'm sure there's a run-on sentence in there somewhere.

Unreal. No one is being truthful, at least no one was before all of this shit was thrown into the fan, and now that attention has been turned to the entire fiasco the scramble is on to save face and make sure no one is turned off to the NHL... at least in Phoenix.

Canada? Yeah, well, they're the ace in the hole Gary can count on. Canadians love hockey no matter what and they're not going to give up on the game. He can suffer the PR hits in Canada all he wants because he knows that Canadian fans aren't going anywhere and that they'll stick to the NHL for life. For fans in Winnipeg, Manitoba or Hamilton, Ontario they're going to be watching the Maple Leafs or Flames or Oilers every Saturday night on CBC and all season long on TSN whether there's a team in their backyard or not.

The Canadian NHL Fan is the closest thing Bettman has to a sure thing in his operation, they are his easy money. Getting more money out of Canadians by putting another franchise there doesn't excite him, especially if it means a team playing in an arena that doesn't pass the sniff test (like Copps Coliseum in Hamilton) or one that doesn't hold as many folks as they'd ideally like to see (MTS Centre in Winnipeg).

What can't Bettman afford to do? He can't afford to do what David Stern did so egregiously with the Seattle Super Sonics and just pick up stakes and move to an out-of-the-way place like Oklahoma City all while giving Seattle the finger and lecturing them about how to cave into the NBAs demands.

After all, we're not talking about the Coyotes demanding a new arena they've got that in Glendale with Jobing.com Arena. We're talking about a team that is bleeding money in a market that, media-wise, didn't give a damn about the Coyotes until they were about to run out of town and leave a hulking monument to failure in their backyard.

Bettman and the NHL can't afford (literally and figuratively) to have an empty year-round Jobing.com Arena stand as their legacy and run out of town screaming leaving one of the United States largest cities franchise-free with any and all of the fans they had left behind pissed off and hating the NHL forever. This isn't the kind of situation that happened when the Cardinals of the NFL left St. Louis for Arizona only to have the Rams move from Los Angeles to St. Louis later on.

If the NHL leaves Phoenix, this is what they'll be doing: Not just burning the bridge down, but blowing it up.

There may be a lot of fans in Phoenix and surrounding cities that love hockey, but they will never trust nor care about the NHL ever again should they leave town and every bridge out of town would be exploded and set ablaze to never come back to again. Phoenix would be Gary Bettman's failed experiment in expanding the NHL to new and unthinkable locations.

This is what is at stake here for the NHL and the fans in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Glendale are all caught in the middle. Bettman's e-mail to Bill Daly expressing his thoughts of going back to Winnipeg are a sign of fear.

After all, if things cannot be sustained or saved in Phoenix you might as well bring the team back home before exploring something new and different in Canada and deal with the legal wrangling that would have to take place with the Maple Leafs and Sabres not to mention potentially screwing Jim Balsillie out of his wishes to join the ownership club.

If Bettman were to take the Coyotes back to Winnipeg, he's viewed as a hero and a humbled one for righting a wrong and bringing a team back to Canada and back to a place that once had a much beloved franchise. If things are saved in Phoenix, then it's all status quo and the financial eye just locks in on the Coyotes even more for the time being and the new owners that come in get to play the part of saviors all at Gary's urging.

The only thing that will stay constant in all this is that Jim Balsillie will not be the knight in shining armor for southern Ontario because that's the side in all this that everyone wants no part in...

Unless your name is Jerry Moyes and there's $215 million at stake in the matter for you.

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