The ultimate power play

 

Many have marvelled this week at the terrific playoff series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, and with good reason.

 
 
 
 
 

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Many have marvelled this week at the terrific playoff series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, and with good reason.

There are stars and characters galore on these two entertaining, well-managed and well-coached teams, and clearly these are two cities which are passionately behind their clubs.

But if the same logic had been applied to the Caps and Penguins a few years ago that many are now urging must be applied to the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, neither team would be in their current city.

Would the NHL be better for it? Probably not.

Folks, this is why it's important during this ongoing debate over the future of the Coyotes not to be distracted by extraneous, irrelevant issues.

This, you see, isn't about popularity contests between Gary Bettman and Jim Balsillie or meaningless website gimmicks.

It's certainly not about patriotism or "unserved markets" – is there a market more saturated by hockey at all levels than southern Ontario? – or whether Canada deserves another NHL franchise.

This is about a business, the NHL, that sells professional hockey. So let's get a few facts straight.

For starters, the NHL has the right to the pursue business strategies of its choice under the laws of Canada and the United States. There is no moral imperative here.

Second, a successful franchise in Phoenix – something that hasn't yet been achieved because of awful ownership and management – is potentially worth more to the NHL than a successful second franchise in southern Ontario.

Third, franchises can flourish in the U.S. southwest and the Sun Belt. Look at Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose.

Finally, the NHL has a pretty good track record – not perfect, but pretty good – when it comes to turning bankrupt or failing franchises into profitable ones. Look at Pittsburgh and Washington. Look at Ottawa and Buffalo.

All these points are all dismissed or ignored by those who have drank deeply from Balsillie's Kool-Aid machine.

They want you to buy into a set of assumptions – articles of faith, really – that may be true, but also might be completely wrong.

They want you to assume that Balsillie would be a terrific NHL owner even though he has no history in pro sports and appears to have utter disdain for the rules and constitution of the league he wants to join. Bruce McNall, Michael Eisner, Wayne Huizenga, Howard Baldwin, Rod Bryden, Norm Green, John Rigas – all were one-time NHL owners who initially appeared promising and turned out to be weak, wanting or crooked.

The Balsillie enthusiasts also want you to assume another team in southern Ontario would be a smash hit even though history over the past century tells us few hockey ventures in this part of Canada, professional or amateur, succeed.

It's simply not a given that a second southern Ontario team would work. The team might be quixotically managed, poorly marketed, awkwardly located and lousy to watch.

Just like the Phoenix Coyotes.

The sensible approach, then, is for the NHL to do two things. First, try and fix the Coyotes by putting quality ownership in place.

Second, establish a blue-ribbon committee to examine the viability of a second team in southern Ontario.

Analyze the possible demand, determine in real terms how such a franchise would affect the Leafs and Buffalo Sabres and then, assuming a net benefit was identified for all the existing partners, set a franchise fee that all 30 existing teams would share.

Yanking a struggling team out of one market to put it somewhere else that looks promising just isn't the way Bettman's NHL has done business. If it was, there wouldn't be teams in Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Washington right now. Maybe not in Edmonton or Calgary, either.

Balsillie may not like this system. Well, he doesn't have to buy into a business that he believes is run incorrectly.

In fact, he can start his own, all-Canadian league if he wants

But he surely doesn't have a birthright to be welcomed into the NHL on his terms.

 
 
 
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