Redfield T. Baum wasn't the only one trying to figure out what to make of the muddled Coyotes last weekend. Baum is the U.S. bankruptcy judge who will decide who gets to buy the struggling Phoenix franchise, Blackberry baron Jim Balsillie or the NHL's preferred buyer—the NHL. (Balsillie has bid $242.5 million, the NHL $140 million; a decision is expected this week at the earliest.) While Baum ruminated, the team opened camp last Saturday without its coach and managing partner, Wayne Gretzky, who was expected to stay home until there's a ruling. No coach, no owner: Welcome to the season, boys!
Philosophically, both sides have their merits. Commissioner Gary Bettman is on solid ground in defending the NHL's right to choose whom to admit as an owner. By a 26--0 vote, owners rejected the intractable Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion, in July, at least partly because they disapprove of his plan to move the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ont. But Balsillie, who previously failed to buy the Penguins and Predators, is no less correct in his argument that the league should place the Coyotes where people actually like hockey. They have never turned a profit since leaving Winnipeg for Phoenix in 1996. As Coyotes majority investor Jerry Moyes said on the courthouse steps last Friday, "Hockey will not work in the South. Mr. Bettman's plan is not working. You've got Phoenix, you've got Dallas, you've got Atlanta, you've got Tampa Bay all in trouble. These teams have got to move north where everybody loves hockey."
Whether Balsillie becomes an owner or Hamilton gets a franchise—a witness for the league testified last Thursday that the city and its environs would constitute the league's fifth-largest market—the NHL should put another team in Canada. The obvious choice is somewhere in the wealthy greater Toronto area. (Balsillie, an Ontarian, calls it the NHL's largest underserved market.) The muscular Maple Leafs and, to a lesser extent, the Sabres, who are 65 miles away from Hamilton, would cringe at the prospect of a neighboring team. But Bettman, either with infusions of cash or moral suasion, should do his part to convince those teams that having another franchise on solid Canadian footing would benefit the entire league.
On Bettman's watch the Jets moved to Phoenix and the Quebec Nordiques left for Denver. He owes Canada one—or two.
JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS (BALSILLIE)
COYOTE UGLY While Balsillie (left) and Bettman battled in court, Gretzky (below) stayed home.
JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS (BETTMAN)
[See caption above]
JIM COWSERT/ICON SMI (GRETZKY)
[See caption above]