'He wants a team for all the right reasons'

 

The two golfers eyed one another upon meeting on the first tee of the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. They were both rich, successful entrepreneurs. They were both sports addicts: one, with a borderline obsessive-compulsive passion for hockey, and the other, a basketball nut.

 
 
 
 

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The two golfers eyed one another upon meeting on the first tee of the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. They were both rich, successful entrepreneurs. They were both sports addicts: one, with a borderline obsessive-compulsive passion for hockey, and the other, a basketball nut.

A wager was struck: 10 bucks. Winner takes all.

On the 15th green, Ron Foxcroft, the basketball nut, looked over at his opponent, Jim Balsillie, who was trailing in the match and rapidly approaching defeat, and he said: "I gotcha." Mr. Balsillie, the BlackBerry king, began to vibrate. His face flushed with anger, and he seethed, through gritted teeth, "double or nothing."

"So I beat him on 16, 17 and 18 and took him for the 20 bucks," Mr. Foxcroft says, of his first close encounter with a golfing rival and good friend he has known for six years.

"I turned to him afterwards, and said, 'Jim, I kicked your ass, but it's only 20 bucks.' And he turned to me, handed me the 20 bucks, gritted his teeth, and shook -- his whole body was shaking. He looked like he was going to explode. And he says: 'I am too busy to have a Coke. I got to go coach my kids basketball team.' "

Nobody likes to lose. But then, not everybody is like Mr. Balsillie. He loathes losing: on the golf course, at his twice-weekly game of pick-up hockey, in the boardroom of Research In Motion -- the company he helped build -- and in the Canadian billionaire's ongoing battle to buy an NHL franchise that entered a new phase in an Arizona court this week where the Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy.

"I think Jimmy wants two things in life, to be an NHL player or to own an NHL team, and he told me he doesn't think he is going to make it as a player," Mr. Foxcroft says.

"He is going to win this NHL thing."

Mr. Foxcroft spoke to the National Post from the Hamilton Economic Summit, a conference that attracts the best and brightest among the local business community. The conference's theme concerns how best to transform a dying steel town into a vibrant 21st-century economy.

Mr. Balsillie's latest gambit to purchase an NHL franchise was not on the agenda. But with Hamilton rumoured to be the next home of the Coyotes, it was all anybody wanted to talk about.

Mr. Foxcroft, for one, is betting on Mr. Balsillie. He knows him as a smart businessman, a passionate hockey fan, and a fierce competitor who competes even when he is not involved in the game.

Mr. Foxcroft refereed the gold medal basketball game at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The basketball nut went on to invent the Fox 40 whistle, a standard in major professional sports.

Today, along with his other business ventures, Mr. Foxcroft works for the NBA evaluating the officials at Toronto Raptors games. Mr. Balsillie is often his guest in row 10 at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoons.

"He barks at the referees, and I give him s--t. Every time he is at the game, if we are sitting together, I give him s--t," Mr. Foxcroft says.

"And if he is sitting down from me, I send him a Black-Berry message: stop barking at the referees. And he will come back with some trash talk. We are both from the locker room, although we are in business."

Mr. Balsillie's beer league hockey buddies tell the same kind of stories. The Black-Berry king may be rich, and smart. But he seems most at home in the dressing room, talking trash, and getting ready for the big game.

Once Mr. Balsillie steps on the ice, the only thing that matters is winning, and not who gets in the way.

"I don't think he is on [NHL commissioner Gary]Bettman's Christmas card or birthday card list. But I don't think he cares," Mr. Foxcroft says.

"I don't think he cares about being in the wine and cheese club. I think he just wants a hockey team, for all the right reasons. He loves hockey."

And Jim Balsillie hates to lose.

TIMELINE PART 1

SEPTEMBER, 2006

For the first time, Research In Motion Ltd. co-chief executive Jim Balsillie's name is connected to the potential purchase of a NHL franchise, when he is rumoured to be the front-runner to purchase the financially strapped Pittsburgh Penguins.

OCT. 5, 2006

Mr. Balsillie officially seeks approval from the NHL's board of governors to purchase the Penguins for US$175-million, amid rumoured intentions of eventually moving the team to Hamilton. "I'm going to get my name on the [Stanley] Cup one way or the other," he states.

DEC. 15, 2006

Mr. Balsillie pulls his offer to buy the Penguins off the table after the league imposes several last-minute conditions, including a clause that would keep the billionaire from relocating the team to Canada for at least seven years. Sources say Mr. Balsillie was "blindsided" by the list of demands.

LATE DECEMBER, 2006

After arena talks break down, Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux says he is willing to explore moving the franchise out of Pennsylvania. Mr. Balsillie writes Mr. Lemieux a letter of apology for abruptly rescinding his original offer and suggesting they begin negotiating a Plan B. After briefly negotiating a move to Kansas City, Mr. Lemieux nails a deal to stay in Pittsburgh.

MAY 23, 2007

Mr. Balsillie agrees to buy the Nashville Predators franchise for US$220-million, agreeing to keep the franchise in Tennessee for at least the next season. A clause in the Predators' contract allows for relocation if paid attendance falls below 14,000, which stirs the possibility of a move to Hamilton or Kitchener.

MAY 30 ,2007

A company owned by Mr. Balsillie signs an exclusive agreement with Hamilton's Copps Coliseum in what is described as a "contingency plan" if his soon-to-be-purchased Nashville franchise terminates its arena lease.

JUNE 6, 2007

Canada's Competition Bureau launches an inquiry into the franchise relocation practices of the NHL, investigating sections of the league's constitution that deal with franchise territorial rights. The probe is believed to have stemmed from the possibility of the Predators relocating to Hamilton, which falls within the 80-kilometre "no-competition" zones of both the Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. After meeting with NHL officials, the watchdog discontinued its probe.

JUNE 11, 2007

Mr. Balsillie applies for the right to relocate the Predators if the team fails in Nashville, forcing the league to consider the issue of moving the team to Ontario at the same time as it considers his bid to purchase the team. Sources believe the request is an attempt to gauge league ownership's opinion on a relocation before the purchase is finalized.

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TIMELINE PART 2

JUNE 14, 2007

With several steps to go before Hamilton could see a team, Mr. Balsillie's Golden Horseshoe Entertainment launches a season-ticket pledge drive to gauge the level of interest in Southern Ontario by selling refundable deposits on seats.

JUNE 18, 2007

Appearing that a deal to buy the team won't be complete by free agent-signing season, Predators owner Craig Leipold goes about trimming the team's payroll. Hopes of Mr. Balsillie purchasing the team for relocation appear to be on ice.

JUNE 28, 2007

Mr. Leipold decides to walk away from the Balsillie deal and negotiate the sale of the team to a consortium for less money.

AUG. 1, 2007

A letter of intent to sell the Predators to a group of Nashville businessmen is signed. The sale is worth US$193-million, at least US$25-million less than the deal offered by Mr. Balsillie, but the group states its intention of keeping the team in Tennessee.

OCT. 17, 2007

Golden Horseshoe Entertainment calls off its bid to sell season tickets in Hamilton.

APRIL 1, 2008

Competition bureau announces it will not pursue civil action against the NHL after concluding its relocation practices and ownership policies do not contravene the Competition Act.

JUNE 4, 2008

Reported that as many as eight teams have made overtures to Mr. Balsillie about the possible sale or minority partnership with the Canadian billionaire in the past seven months.

SEPT. 12, 2008

While speaking generally at an event in Toronto, Wayne Gretzky, coach and part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, said he expects to see a second team in Southern Ontario one day, saying either Hamilton and Kitchener could support a franchise.

MARCH 24, 2009

As the Montreal Canadiens struggle through a "difficult period," Mr. Balsillie's name was briefly tossed around as one person who may be interested in pursuing the franchise.

APRIL 23, 2009

Remaining true to its long-time stance, league officials say putting a second team in the GTA is not in its plans, in response to rumours they had met with representatives from Vaughan.

MAY 5, 2009

Mr. Balsillie extends an offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5-million, on the condition he is allowed to relocate the team to Southern Ontario, on the same day the Coyotes file for bankruptcy protection. His offer is included in the court filings. Owner Jerry Moyes said they had tried to find a local buyer.

Matthew Coutts, National Post

 
 
 
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