Opinion: Jim Balsillie was felled by hockey’s snuffling cranks

Gary Bettman has no standing to decide who can be an owner, and he shouldn’t be fronting a blackballing operation.

There seems to be little doubt that James Balsillie was somewhat abrasive in his efforts to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League. His conduct, from all accounts, including his, was not clubbable. But should the NHL be run as a club? It is a business, and the personal frictions between a prospective owner and the incumbent owners should not be the principal criterion for accepting a new franchise owner of a franchise.

The NHL was carried away with the joys of copycat, helter-skelter proliferation when it expanded to tropical cities where the sport had scarcely been heard of. The promotional genius of the late Jack Kent Cooke, as well as the presence of 750,000 ex-Canadians among the more than 10 million Angelinos, had produced the success of the Los Angeles Kings. Miami also has a great many Canadians, especially in the winter. But the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes are pushing it, zoologically and otherwise.

At this point, a double confession is required. As a young person, I was a militant supporter of the Montreal Canadiens, and I have never forgiven the NHL establishment for disallowing Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s seventh-game overtime goal in the 1954 Stanley Cup Final, and even less for the egregious commissioner Clarence Campbell’s suspension of the Rocket for the season, including the playoffs, in 1955. Campbell was of that awful school of elderly, grey, sanctimonious and arbitrary ’50s figures, like Avery Brundage of the Olympics, miniature replicas ofthen U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles.

The effect of these two decisions was to cause the Canadiens to lose, by the narrowest of margins, the Stanley Cup in those two seasons. Without those misjudgments, they would have won eight consecutive world championships, which that incomparable national team of French Canada deserved. It all smacked of ethnic prejudice, provoked the Forum riots of 1955, and was an election side issue in Premier Maurice Duplessis’s fifth general election victory in Quebec in June 1956, in which the team’s three leaders, Richard, Geoffrion and the universally admired and always elegant Jean Beliveau, all campaigned for Duplessis. I have been skeptical of league commissioners since.

My other admission is that after the retirement of those three, I lost almost all interest in the sport, and would have trouble now naming five players in the league. I do watch the odd game on television, and tend to agree with my late father’s resigned comment (40 years ago), that hockey has become “a gladiatorial combat on skates,” but it’s no less interesting for that.

Having got those demerits off my chest, the point of this column is that Balsillie should have prevailed in his bid to buy the Coyotes. He is a wealthy, very accomplished, and dedicated hockey supporter, and he would help strengthen the national sport in Canada and would have emphasized the rise of Toronto as a serious world city, even though the team would have played in Hamilton. This would be a logical sequel to Toronto’s new opera house, Canada’s first (and not premature in its 138th year of Confederation), and tothe many enhancements of the central core of the city.

Being an NHL owner is not like being a trustee of the Jockey Club, which really is a club, whose elders can indulge their interest in horse racing as amply or as frugally as they choose. The commissioner, Gary Bettman, to borrow (and abuse) one of the regnant current platitudes, has no real skin in the game. He has no standing to decide who the owners, his employers, should be, and he should not be fronting a blackballing operation for the incumbents.

Similarly, the recent exclusion of Rush Limbaugh from a minority shareholding in a National Football League franchise application was both outrageous and stupid. Franchise minority shareholders do not have to be, and in practice, are not, candidates for sainthood, and Rush Limbaugh has the inestimable potential asset to a team and to the sport, of twenty million radio listeners for three hours, five days a week.

For the NHL itself to buy the team, the present plan, is nonsense, and typical of the worst of the club system. The Phoenix Coyotes are now an Ozymandian castaway: “Round the decay / of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / the lone and level [Arizona] sands stretch far away.” The NHL franchise owners would have done all interested parties a favour if they had stipulated reasonable terms for a change of ownership and location, put a dignified end to this bench-clearing melee, and stopped milling about in their executive boxes like snuffling, cranky dowagers.

Conrad Black is former CEO of Hollinger International and a columnist for the National Post.