SUN Hockey Pool

Bettman's vision failed

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, seen here talking with Leafs GM Brian Burke, is trying to keep RIM...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, seen here talking with Leafs GM Brian Burke, is trying to keep RIM boss Jim Balsillie out of the league. (Sun Media/Stan Behal)

RICHARD POWERS, Guest Columnist

, Last Updated: 1:32 PM ET

Richard C. Powers is the associate dean and executive director of MBA and Master of Finance program at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

As we await the decision on the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes, there is an interesting angle to the story that should be front and centre -- why does the NHL continue to push its southern U.S. strategy when everything seems to suggest it hasn't worked?

More to the point, how has NHL commissioner Gary Bettman managed to keep his position despite numerous problems and fiascos south of the border? In just about any other job, he would have been turfed out with last week's salad.

Let's examine the facts. Phoenix is just the tip of the iceberg.

Nashville, Atlanta and Dallas are all experiencing financial problems. Tampa Bay and Columbus are right behind them, all feeling the pinch of heavy debt loads, difficult economic conditions and operating in markets where professional hockey ranks behind figure skating and kennel shows in terms of viewer interest.

If the NHL controls the franchises, like Bettman says, then why would you put one in a location that has neither an appetite for the product nor owners with the financial clout to carry the team through good times and bad?

Note that in each and every case, the teams are located in the U.S. With the exception of Edmonton, the Canadian clubs in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal all are in the top half of franchise values and have become successful organizations.

The Maple Leafs, despite their woeful record, are the most valuable franchise in the NHL and one of the most valuable teams in the world, although they trail the NFL, several professional soccer, MLB and NBA teams by a long shot.

And how about the owners? The NHL has argued despite the problems it faces in Phoenix, Jim Balsillie is not the "right" kind of person that should be running an NHL club.

The league claims he lacks integrity and good character, presumably characteristics he lost over the past five years since trying to acquire both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

Back then he was deemed to be OK. What has changed?

Nothing really, except for the fact the commish can't stand him since he spoiled his ludicrous plans to have the NHL take over the Coyotes by plotting with Jerry Moyes to put the team into bankruptcy protection.

But Bettman saw nothing wrong with breaking bread with owners such as John Rigas and William (Boots) Del Biaggio -- both convicted of fraud and currently residing in federal prisons.

Rigas and del Biaggio apparently demonstrated the good character necessary to be owners in the NHL.

There is a long list of NHL proprietors who have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing -- think back to Harold Ballard and Bruce McNall, and although we cannot blame Bettman for all of them, it demonstrates that the selection process is far from perfect.

In another profession, with different bosses, Bettman would be collecting unemployment insurance.

His handling of the labour strife with the players resulted in a lost season and further damaged the reputation of the league.

The lack of a big-time U.S. television contract is one of the key reasons the NHL has not been successful in the U.S., and we can point the finger of blame for that failure right at Bettman -- it was his job to get one and he has failed miserably.

In the end, should the NHL prevail in Phoenix and Mr. Bettman one-ups Mr. Balsillie, what will it all mean?

Well, for starters, the NHL and its owners will have to dig into their pockets to prop up the failing franchise again this season.

Last year's losses totalled around $60 million, and this year's uncertainty definitely will result in larger deficits.

The bigger question is: Just how long will the owners support Bettman's strategy before they pull the plug?

And how long will they support the man behind the strategy?

Bettman may win this battle in the desert, but his war in the U.S. is far from over.


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