Hamilton mayor certain Bettman will see light

JOE WARMINGTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

HAMILTON -- "You can't print what I think of Gary Bettman"

-- Hamilton resident Verne Wooldridge

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You wouldn't be mayor if you didn't understand the sentiment of your constituency.

And Mayor Fred Eisenberger understands very well that in Steeltown, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn't exactly get a standing ovation.

He wants people to look past that.

"We need to show him the upside," he said last night outside Copps Coliseum.

In other words, if Hamilton does succeed in becoming the new home of the Phoenix Coyotes, they're going to have to work with this man and the other teams in the league he leads.

"We need to talk to Mr. Bettman and show him the potential and show him that this is a great hockey town," the mayor said.

Here we were on a Tuesday night outside Copps as fans strolled in for the Leonard Cohen concert and the mayor, who was attending, looked around at all of the potential.

"It would be great for sure," he said of having an NHL team.

Like everyone else here, he kept checking his BlackBerry to see if the bankruptcy court in Arizona had ruled in favour of Phoenix Coyotes bidder Jim Balsillie, of BlackBerry fame, or with the NHL -- which could effectively dash this city's hopes once again to join the ranks of the NHL.

When word came down that the court wouldn't have a decision, Eisenberger shrugged his shoulders. He can wait another day. Another week or even another year.

He believes sooner or later the NHL will see the merits of Hamilton.

Same goes for lifelong Hamiltonian Verne Wooldridge, who isn't so sure Hamilton is not being played once again as a pawn in the game of slick American power brokers.

He said Bettman's latest comment to dis this hard-working city in the media really hurt some people.

Media have reported Bettman's comments about Hamilton: "The building is too old, etc., and, frankly, if this team had to move, it should first be offered to Winnipeg."

"It's like they are boys with toys who want to keep them to themselves," said Wooldridge, who says he has been offended by a lot of the insults that have been hurled at his city. He feels the NHL would be lucky to get Hamilton, which will have a lot more than 7,000 people at every game.

"A team here in Hamilton is long overdue ...," he said. "I just don't know where Mr. Bettman's logic is."

Eisenberger said that when you're in a high-stakes political and business power play like this, it's better to look past it. Hamilton has seen its share of tough negotiations, and severe labour disruptions before, and has waited news that affects its future before, too.

And in negotiations you have to leave room for hands to be shaken at some point. His goal is to become the toast of professional sports.

Still, he understands how people like Wooldridge feel -- especially when he hears Bettman say Copps is 30 years old or even 40 years old. But he believes you just have to keep setting the record straight and aiming for good will and an eventual solution.

"Mr. Bettman is wrong on the age of the arena," Eisenberger said. "Copps Coliseum is 24 years old and it's a good building that can be easily upgraded. It's solid and adaptable."

LIFT THE ROOF

He said about $150 million would be needed to lift the roof and install corporate boxes and more seats, to go with new dressing rooms and media facilities. To do a more cosmetic and workable makeover can be achieved for between $5 million and $20 million.

As for the city, he believes it's up to the challenge of hosting at least 45 hockey games a year.

"I was at the Canada Cups. Those turned out great," he said, adding the city is already moving to the future in terms of rebuilding the downtown core and improving transit to connect with all sectors of the region.

"We are cautiously optimistic as we wait to see what happens and we support Mr. Balsillie's proposal," Eisenberger said.

"It would be good for us, but I don't see it as a Hail Mary play for Hamilton. We are rebuilding but there is no question this, and perhaps winning the Pan Am Games bid, would speed it up."

At some point, after all of the courtroom battles have played themselves out, the mayor believes, it might be a good idea to have Balsillie and Bettman in the same room in Hamilton -- and take a walk around.

He's correct and there is certainly no room for anybody to put down a city, or even a bidder like Balsillie, for offering to do something very special and positive for the NHL.

It's not a bad thing and it's not just about power. It's about the good of hockey. Balsillie and Hamilton would be good for hockey.

"Mr. Bettman has been here before and he's familiar with the Copps Coliseum," Eisenberger said. "And he knows this is a great city."

Hamilton residents like Verne Wooldridge would sure like to hear the commissioner say that.


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