Commish insists no bad blood

BRUCE GARRIOCH

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

DETROIT -- Not surprisingly, the name Jim Balsillie came up a lot in Gary Bettman's annual state-of-the-league address yesterday.

The BlackBerry billionaire's bid to move the Phoenix Coyotes to southern Ontario dominated Bettman's news conference. But the NHL commissioner went out of his way to insist his feelings about the bid are based on policies and procedures -- not personalities.

"If the owners conclude, in the final analysis, that (Balsillie)'s someone that they'd like to have as a partner, then we'll vote him in," said Bettman.

"And if, in the final analysis, they don't think he's suitable to be a partner for whatever reasons, they'll prefer to keep him out. If my opinion is one they're interested in, I will express it to them when asked.

"(The media's questions) seem to implicate that somehow this is personal. From my standpoint, it's not personal. It's about league rules and it's about doing the right thing in terms of the stability of this game and this league."

Bettman said Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes shouldn't have filed for bankruptcy protection because the team's precarious financial situation was "about 20 minutes from being fixed."

Arizona Judge Redfield Baum is expected to deliver his decision June 9 on whether the team can be relocated, but Bettman said the NHL should ultimately decide where the franchise will play.

"We're in the hands of the judge, but we believe that our rules are necessary, appropriate and legally enforceable," said Bettman.

The day Moyes filed for bankruptcy protection in Phoenix, the NHL was ready to sign a letter of intent with Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to buy the team for approximately $130 million US.

Bettman made it clear he doesn't like the idea of Balsillie moving the franchise without going through the process laid out in the NHL's bylaws.

"The issue here is league rules and league process and procedures," he said.

"This is a profound issue for all sports leagues. This is not just an NHL issue. This is not a Canada vs. U.S. issue. This is not a Phoenix vs. Hamilton issue."

The commissioner didn't slam the door on the possibility of a second team in southern Ontario, but said it is "not something that we've studied.

"If we decide to move a franchise, which I hope we're not going to do, or if we decide to expand, if there's suitable ownership and there's a suitable arena situation, that's something we're going to have to take a look at," he said.

Among other topics Bettman discussed:

* He said he would like the NHL Players' Association to agree to in-season drug testing, but needs executive director Paul Kelly to get the players on board. "He believes he needs some time to get his members to go along with it," said Bettman.

* There has been no decision on the NHL's participation in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. While the players' union favours going to the Games, Bettman wants to wait until after next year's Vancouver Olympics to make a decision.

* Bettman said league revenues are up 4%, but he expects the $56.7-million salary cap to remain the same next season because of the decline in the value of the Canadian dollar.

BRUCE.GARRIOCH@SUNMEDIA.CA


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