Third time the charm for Balsillie?

Canada’s favourite renegade billionaire is up to his old tricks once again, as Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Waterloo-based Research in Motion (RIM), has put in a bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that has been struggling to sell tickets throughout its existence and who hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years.

Balsillie sent waves of controversy throughout the NHL, as his offer of $212.2 million is conditional on being able to move the franchise to Canada, specifically Hamilton, “the un-served market of Southern Ontario.”

As most recall, this isn’t Balsillie’s first attempt at bringing Canada a seventh NHL team. In 2006, the RIM co-CEO attempted to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, and although he never said it publicly, most believed it was Balsillie’s intention to move the team to Canada.

Balsillie was much more direct about his intentions during his second bid for an NHL franchise. When he attempted to buy the Nashville Predators in 2007, he flat-out said he was planning on moving the team to Hamilton, and even began selling vouchers for season tickets for the 2007-08 season.

So the big question now is, will the third time be the charm for Balsillie?

If the NHL, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, has anything to say about it, the answer will be no.

Just as they did in his previous attempts to buy teams, league executives have dismissed the idea of moving the team and have criticized Balsillie’s business practises.

Hiding behind the excuse that they don’t run out of fans, the NHL has pledged to keep the Coyotes in their current home, the hockey wasteland of Glendale, Arizona.

My question to Mr. Bettman is where was this attitude when the Winnipeg Jets, a beloved franchise with a terrific fanbase, was ripped out of the small Manitoba market and moved to Phoenix?

Or when the Quebec Nordiques were moved Colorado?
Or when the Hartford Whalers were taken to Carolina?

For some bizarre reason, Bettman seems hell-bent on forcing hockey into markets where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t sell.

There is no logical reason to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, the city where it went bankrupt, and prevent the sale to an owner who’s not just a businessman but also an avid hockey fan.

It seems impossible to contest the fact that the Coyotes franchise would be better off in Hamilton. The area is ripe with hockey fans craving an alternative to the corporately monopolized Toronto Maple Leafs.

Selling tickets is not the issue. The main problem with Hamilton, according to hockey pundits, seems to be the lack of a professional-ready facility, as Copps Coliseum has been deemed unacceptable to house an NHL team by many in the hockey community.

But even that problem has been somewhat rectified, as on May 13, the provincial government announced that it would not rule out the use of public funds to help improve the arena to make it appropriate for a pro team.

So the only barrier standing in Balsillie’s way now seems to be Bettman and the NHL executives, who have never given a reason why they are so adamantly against moving a struggling southern team to Canada, besides the aforementioned “we don’t run our fans.”

It certainly doesn’t make sense in hockey terms, but it makes even less sense in business terms.
The only explanation appears to be some kind of vendetta against our fair nation. And until there is a massive change at NHL headquarters, sadly it looks like Canada will never get its much deserved seventh team.

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