Sports nut goes from RIM to centre of hockey world


This is not about whether or not Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner ... This is about the league's rules and the enforceability of our rules. Gary Bettman


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This is not about whether or not Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner ... This is about the league's rules and the enforceability of our rules. Gary Bettman

In explaining his latest bid to bring another NHL team to Southern Ontario, Waterloo's Jim Balsillie says: "I'm clearly just a passionate hockey fan."

He is that. But he is also so much more.

Balsillie is a wildly successful businessman, co-CEO of Research In Motion, makers of BlackBerry, a position from which he has built a personal fortune last year estimated at $3.4 billion (U.S.).

Yes, he can easily afford to offer $212.5 million (U.S.) for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, but he can, and does, make enormous charitable donations and bankroll a number of Ontario-based think tanks. He is as committed to solving global issues as he is to pursuing his hockey dreams, which he's had since his childhood in Peterborough.

What makes James Laurence Balsillie tick? Nothing more than a challenge, the bigger the better. In this 48-year-old dynamo NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has a formidable foe and would-be ally. Twice Bettman has frustrated Balsillie purchase bids, involving the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators. Now, he's back for more and no one should be surprised.

In a speech earlier this year, Balsillie described himself as "the quant-jock from Peterborough who doesn't quit."

"Quant" refers to quantitative, as in numbers, as in math, as in finances. Balsillie is a chartered accountant, a 1984 graduate of the University of Toronto's Trinity College who went on to earn his MBA from Harvard in 1989.

While at Trinity, he was voted athlete of the year and also earned a reputation for playing a cutthroat game of backgammon.

Balsillie's father Raymond was an electronics technician who worked at the Darlington nuclear station, his mother Laurel stayed home with their three kids. She has said she knew Jim had an entrepreneurial streak early on as he went door-to-door selling greeting cards at age 7 and juggled several newspaper routes with various other jobs.

At university, Balsillie stood out for his habit of allotting himself 15-minute breaks from his studies to watch the NHL playoffs. Regardless the game situation, he had the self-discipline to return to the books.

The Balsillies were supporters of the Peterborough Petes, who were formerly affiliated with the Montreal Canadiens. Balsillie remains a diehard Habs fan.

He plays hockey regularly in Waterloo, just one of the guys, competes in triathlons, carries a golf handicap of about 10, is an avid cyclist and coaches teams that include his kids, Rachel and James. He has also used his position to rub athletic shoulders with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Guy Lafleur.

After riding in a 155-kilometre charity event with Armstrong and legendary cyclist Eddie Merckx, Balsillie told the Waterloo Region Record: "The only thing that would be equated (with that) would be if I could play hockey with the 1950s Montreal Canadiens."

He takes his hockey seriously enough, according to Waterloo Public Library profile, that "during the summer, he can often be found on the ice in Kitchener's Auditorium at 5:30 a.m., improving his skills with the help of a former Kitchener Ranger."

No surprise that he has said of his pursuit of an NHL team: "I'm going to get my name on the (Stanley Cup) one way or the other. What Canadian boy wouldn't do it (buy a team) if he could?"

Balsillie grants few interviews but friends describe him as a "regular" guy who lives a "regular" life with wife Heidi, a Hamilton girl he met at university, and their children.

"Jim puts family before everyone and everything," Ron Foxcroft, a Hamilton businessman with ties to the NBA, said yesterday. "He's also the most competitive guy," noting they play golf and attend Raptors games together.

"I would bet money that he'll get an NHL team. And for all the right reasons. He'll buy this for passion and for a determination to help economic development. ... Without a doubt he is the most determined and passionate sport person you and I will ever meet in our lives. And," added Foxcroft, who assesses referees for the NBA, "I've been around the Michael Jordans of the world."

Balsillie's got a world view, too. He has donated $100 million to investigate global issues and Canadian foreign policy, as well as establishing the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. He said he enjoys the company of academics and thinkers.

"I'm comfortable because I don't try to pretend I'm the smart guy. I enjoy hearing what these people have to say, I enjoy learning and I enjoy asking questions. But I don't pretend I'm the expert, any more than when I play pickup hockey with NHLers that I start to believe I'm an NHL-calibre hockey player. I'm just a kid playing a bunch of great athletes."

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