Balsillie's RIM shot

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

Five years of unsuccessfully knocking on National Hockey League doors convinced billionaire Jim Balsillie that his only shot at securing a second NHL franchise for Southern Ontario was to find another door -- and then bust it down.

In a wide-ranging interview yesterday with Sun Media, the BlackBerry magnate admitted that he would have been happy to attain a seventh team for Canada using traditional methods but those were shunned by the NHL.

"I spent five years trying to look for a front door here. I couldn't find one," Balsillie said of his unconventional strategy of trying to purchase the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton.

"We had to find another door. We had to create another door. Five years of gauging a number of teams we got nowhere, it was a long time."

In addition to interpreting his unconventional business strategy in this offer, Balsillie insisted in the interview that:

- His battle with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not personal from his end but wouldn't rule out the opposite.

- A Hamilton NHL franchise would not necessarily be named Hamilton. Ontario or Southern Ontario is more likely.

- The NHL territorial bylaws, which prevent him from being within 50 miles of Toronto or Buffalo, are "from another era."

- He is optimistic he will win in bankruptcy court, thus gaining the Phoenix franchise.

The fight, though, is a big-time power struggle.

On one side is RIM Jim, the Research in Motion billionaire, waving the Canadian flag for a seventh NHL franchise.

On the other side is NHL commissioner Bettman, who is no fan of Balsillie's and does not want his league's business being dictated by anyone but him.

Make no mistake, this is personal and nasty even if Balsillie, the pragmatist, doesn't view it that way.

When asked to characterize his relationship with Bettman, he said: "It's fun for people to speculate about this.

"Personalities are irrelevant in this. This is about an issue and an agenda. Should there be a seventh team in Canada? And should that seventh team be in Southern Ontario? That's the condition of my ($212.5 million U.S.) bid.

"Personality has nothing to do with this. If somebody wants a seventh team in Canada, this is a really, really, good bid. If somebody doesn't want a seventh team in Canada, particularly in Southern Ontario, then obviously this is a challenge. But this has nothing to do with personality, nothing whatsoever."

The somebody he doesn't mention is Bettman, who has inferred that he will allow Balsillie to buy the Coyotes and move them to Hamilton over his dead body, or something along those lines.

Bettman's associates used the word "ambushed" in describing the events that led to owner Jerry Moyes taking the Coyotes to Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Balsillie coming in with a conditional offer that is predicated on his moving the team to Hamilton. Some say they have never seen the commissioner more angry.

"To me, this is not personal," said Balsillie. "You have an owner (Moyes) who is about to lose all of his $300 million on this. He has $100 million in secured debts and wants a reasonable prospect to realize on that note.

"He's walking away from $200 million of that. There are rules and laws that control how these things operate. And that's how the process works. We're supporting the process with an offer that has a condition that we would be allowed to move the team to Southern Ontario.

"People can characterize that at their leisure. We're simply responding to a situation. We've made our application to the NHL. We want to comply with their rules."

Of course, all this is open to interpretation.

Since being scolded by bankruptcy Judge Redfield T. Baum for not having dealt with the league upfront in this purchase attempt, Balsillie has since -- at least publicly -- tried to appease the NHL Board of Governors.

The real frustration for the NHL in this is how little control they have of their own situation.

The judge is expected to rule on who rightfully owns the team, possibly as early as today, and after that, there is court time scheduled for June 22, in which the judge could begin the bankruptcy auction, and rule on whether Balsillie has the right to relocate the franchise.

Balsillie seems confident the judge will rule on relocation and is surprisingly optimistic that he will emerge successful this time, even if there is no indication he will be so rewarded in court.

"Our bid," he said, "should stand on its own merits ... The judge said there will be an auction and he will rule on relocation. What more could we ask for?"

In the meantime, there is nothing but hurdles in his way.

Balsillie won't divulge who he has met with privately or on what any of the conversations he has had in this are.

'STRENGTHEN GAME'

With that kind of silence he may never make it in pro sports.

"It's not appropriate," he said to discuss meetings he has had with other NHL owners, Bettman or anyone else involved with the sale and possible move of the Coyotes.

"Private conversations. Private meetings. Fortunately or unfortunately, its inappropriate for me to comment on that."

Balsillie did say if he was given the green light to purchase and move the franchise that it wouldn't necessarily be called "Hamilton."

In fact, he is keenly aware that some NHL owners object to a Hamilton named franchise for its lack of marquee appeal in the United States.

"The Minnesota Wild is a state," said Balsillie, when asked about the franchise name."

The Carolina Panthers is a state. The New Jersey Devils is a state. I guess we could do something. I haven't really looked at it in detail. It's all about bringing value to everybody. For this, we're all ears.

"For me, it's all about being successful and effective. I'd be totally prepared to work with everybody to strengthen the league, strengthen the game, strengthen the franchise. Whatever it takes."

Balsillie did say he settled on Hamilton as the site for his relocation because "there is an arena there.

"That's really important, even though we'd have to renovate it. If you can point to another arena that's available (in Southern Ontario), I'm all ears."

There is another arena available, but it happens to be the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Off the record, the non-commenting Leafs are wildly opposed to a second franchise in Southern Ontario.

But in Los Angeles, for example, the NHL Kings and the NBA's Lakers and Clippers all share the Staples Center. That isn't likely to ever happen at the Air Canada Centre here.

When asked if he had met with Leafs chairman Larry Tanenbaum to discuss the situation, Balsillie again said it was inappropriate to discuss private conversations.

When told Tanenbaum was against a move to Hamilton, Balsillie said: "He's one of 30 votes."

Balsillie did say his tickets in Hamilton would be "reasonably priced" although he didn't say how reasonably and did not address a question about whether he would charge seat licence fees for season ticket holders.

More than anything, Balsillie is counting on the support of Canadians to push the NHL to let him in.

To date, reaction to another NHL team in Canada has been over the top.

He is energized by the reaction to his makeitseven.com website which tracks interest in another Canaian team.

While some might characterize his approach as naive, he views it as enpowering.

"It's an incredibly powerful voice here," said Balsillie. "Is it a factor? You bet. A big factor? You bet. It's wonderful the people and the fans are speaking. The hockey nation is speaking."

Balsillie is speaking, even if he isn't answering all the questions.

Today, the NHL and owner Moyes, must report to judge Baum, on their supposed attempt at mediation.

While neither will admit the other has the right to ownership, thus take the franchise to bankruptcy, the two have agreed that the NHL will continue to fund the operation for the time being.

The three central questions remain:

1) Who owns the Coyotes, the NHL or Moyes;

2) Will the club be sold, and to whom;

3) Will Judge Baum, an elected Arizona official, allow the team to be relocated against the wishes of the NHL?

Little is expected to be determined in court today but on June 22 in Arizona, rulings are possible, if not unlikely.

When asked why he remains so optimistic on the purchase and relocation, Balsillie said: "The Judge said there would be an auction and he would rule on relocation. What more could we ask for?

"All we want are the NHL rules to be applied fairly and transparently.

"We're fully prepared to comply with the courts and comply with NHL rules."

If only he gets the chance.


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