Balsillie a risk NHL has to take

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

It has been said that a coach in the National Hockey League is like a duck -- sailing placidly along the surface but paddling madly underwater.

Soon, thanks to Jim Balsillie, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is going to emulate his coaches and go into full duck mode.

In one way, Balsillie is the answer to Bettman's wildest dreams. Here's a guy who's quite willing to pay $175 million US for the most dilapidated franchise in the league. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a country-club reputation and a history of bankruptcies. To make matters worse, they play in the oldest, least economical arena in the NHL.

In a league based on precedents, if the Penguins are worth $175 million, what's the price for a real franchise?

WHOPPING JUMP

If the sale of the Penguins to Balsillie is approved by the board of governors, the NHL is suddenly worth at least a whopping $3 billion more than it was prior to the lockout.

Really, that's the low end, a very conservative evaluation.

The pre-lockout Penguins were valued at $75 million. Even at that price, no one wanted them. Now they're selling for $175 million.

In percentage terms, the Penguins' value rose 133%. If that figure is extrapolated league-wide, the NHL franchises may be worth $7 billion or $8 billion more than they used to be.

But even on a flat scale, a $100-million increase per franchise spread across 30 franchises is $3 billion.

So Bettman, to whom hockey is an economic opportunity encumbered by a bunch of athletes, isn't about to pass up Balsillie's involvement in the league.

But the arrival of Balsillie may not be the godsend that it seems. What Balsillie really wants is increased NHL involvement in Canada, and to further that end, he's strongly leaning toward moving the Penguins to Hamilton.

Bettman is appalled by such a concept. For one thing, he's dead set against increasing Canadian involvement. For another, he covets stability and doesn't like to see franchises move anywhere, even within the United States.

So the reason he's in duck mode is that he has to present a calm unruffled front and make sure that anyone willing to listen is made aware of the economic resurgence of the NHL as illustrated by the sale of the Penguins.

But below the surface, he has to bar every escape hatch to make sure that the league gets Balsillie for Pittsburgh, not for Hamilton.

ASKED TO SUPPORT BID

As a result, Balsillie will be asked to support the bid by Isle of Capri Entertainment which has offered to build a new arena for the Penguins in return for slot-machine rights.

That deal has been discussed here before, but the bottom line is that it would help the team and make them profitable. Also, the franchise would have to stay in Pittsburgh.

The fun starts if Isle of Capri doesn't get approval. If that happens, unless local politicians can provide a better deal, why should Balsillie stay?

A succession of court cases involving Al Davis and the National Football League showed that, barring certain legal hurdles, franchise owners have the right to move teams.

The NHL tried to institute most of those hurdles and it would not be easy to move a team against the league's will.

But Balsillie is not unfamiliar with the courts and has shown a willingness to battle for principle.

As Chairman and Co-CEO of Research in Motion, he refused to accept a court-ordered settlement of $23 million for patent infringement. He fought the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and lost all the way. RIM finally paid $612.5 million. And that doesn't count the legal fees.

There is simply no way that Bettman or the NHL will exclude Balsillie. The thought of all that cash has them drooling.

But even so, there's still that nagging worry that they may have let the fox, albeit a very wealthy fox, into the henhouse.


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