Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bettman, owners don’t like to budge

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Watching the NFL's owners prepare to turn their back on a $9-billion season should tell us something about the mindset of uber-wealthy sports franchise owners: They don't like to be told what to do.

So while we in Winnipeg were busy patting ourselves on the back and running the Goldwater Institute's flag up the pole last week, the group's sabre-rattling may have only galvanized the NHL's position on the Phoenix Coyotes.

Some were quick to suggest league commissioner Gary Bettman looked defeated in his media conference last Tuesday at Glendale's Arena. Others quietly suggested he appeared defiant.

Weeks ago, the NHL took up the task of trying to sell the now infamous Glendale bond, required to finance Matthew Hulsizer's purchase of the team. Now some NHL insiders are being told the league is "cautiously optimistic" the issue is gaining some traction with interested buyers.

Bettman made it clear in Glendale his goal is to keep the Coyotes right there, and he admitted the league was working on the city's behalf in trying to help the sale along.

So none of this is news, nor should it come as a surprise if the league does indeed find buyers for the bond. It's what they said they would try to do and it's what they want to happen.

What about Goldwater? you say.

What about them? To this point, they've done nothing but get chesty and talk. Can they prevent the bond sale? Maybe. Can they halt the sale of the Coyotes? Maybe. Will they do any of the above? Maybe. But virtue untested is no virtue at all and Gary Bettman appears anxious to put Goldwater to the challenge if he can find some willing partners.

The NHL does not want to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Winnipeg. They've said this over and over. Will they if there is no other choice? Yes. But it's not the preferred outcome and having an outsider such as the Goldwater group dictate the future of the league is akin to throwing a drink into the face of a stubborn fighter. You better be ready to dance. And Mr. Bettman has proven himself quite handy, as the Brits say, in the art of franchise wrangling.

The NHL may have underestimated Goldwater, but the league and its fixers are wide awake now. Goldwater, and the rest of us pulling for the Coyotes to end up in Winnipeg, would do well not to underestimate Bettman and his owners.

Make no mistake, the NHL will decide where its franchises are located.

Need proof? The last time someone tried to tell the league where a franchise would go, they hired a phalanx of lawyers and waged war in court. Victory was expensive -- the league wrote a cheque for $140 million to purchase said Coyotes -- but it sent Jim Balsillie and his southern Ontario dreams packing.

There was another lesson in the Balsillie fiasco, one we all cheered at the time but seem to have forgotten, and that is the way into the NHL is through the front door. Maybe Goldwater is doing the dirty work, but this is still akin to trying to squeak in the side door.

Mark Chipman and David Thomson understand this and that's why you won't hear peep 1 out of True North Sports and Entertainment on this subject.

There's no lobbying to be done by True North.

They understand that if they're to gain entrance into the NHL, it will be by invitation only.

Maybe the deal in Phoenix gets fixed and maybe it doesn't. It's still a 50-50 prospect at best and time is running out.

Or is it? Bettman's clock appeared to get extended a bit late last week. Is that the disgruntlement of 29 owners not enjoying the feeling of being leaned on by an outsider?

Sure, Goldwater's been fun to watch, but we shouldn't pin our NHL hopes on anyone but ourselves. We don't need to. The NHL will come to Winnipeg someday because we are a deserving and viable hockey market, not because it was forced to do so.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2011 C4

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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