By Don Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen/May 7, 2009
OTTAWA - The burgeoning battle between Jim Balsillie and National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman is as much about the league maintaining its current number of Canadian franchises as it is about adding a seventh in southern Ontario, says a former owner of the Ottawa Senators.
So as much as Rod Bryden thinks Jim Balsillie would represent an excellent addition to the group of NHL owners, he also thinks the future of smaller-market Canadian teams is tied to league rules that restrict the relocation of franchises without league approval.
Bryden, who owned the Senators from 1993 through 2003, said Thursday he is keeping close tabs on the feud between Bettman and Research in Motion co-CEO Balsillie, who has made a conditional offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and relocate the team to southern Ontario.
The Coyotes are in the hands of a court in Arizona, their owner Jerry Moyes pushing the club into bankruptcy, while the league considers itself the operators of the team and wants to sell the Coyotes to Chicago real estate magnate Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns Chicago's Major League Baseball White Sox and National Basketball Association Bulls.
Balsillie has put an offer of $212.5 million US on the table, conditional on the team being relocated.
League rules require a two-thirds approval from the board of governors to move a franchise.
The court will first have to decide if the bankruptcy is even valid.
Bryden said those rules protect the likes of the Senators, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.
"It is wrong for NHL franchises, at least the ones in Canada, to be in the position where an owner can just up and sell to the highest bidder," said Bryden, now president and chief executive officer of Plasco Energy Group, a local firm developing energy production from household waste. "The Ottawa Senators would have been worth more in other places, but the team is important to Ottawa.
"I would say the folks in Ottawa would be very upset if they really thought they could lose their team just because there was someone out there who would provide the highest bid and relocate it.
"Let's just suppose the owner here didn't want to put any more money into the franchise and didn't want to be involved any more. It would be terrible to think that they could up and seek the highest bidder anywhere."
Creditors forced the Senators into bankruptcy back in early 2003 after a last-ditch attempt to bring a new investor on board failed.
The move cost Bryden both the team and then the Corel Centre. Through the bankruptcy, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was able to purchase the arena for just $27.5 million (the building cost more than $220 million to build and had an appraised value of $155.5 million) and hockey club for about $100 million.
At the end of the day, the sale price did little to satisfy the list of some 125 creditors, who were owed millions, and Melnyk walked away with the arena for less than 10 cents on each dollar of debt.
The situation in Phoenix differs from the one that took place in Ottawa in that the Coyotes' owner sought bankruptcy protection while the Senators were forced into it.
However, the league is trying to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix just as it did in Ottawa, Buffalo, Nashville and Pittsburgh during difficult times.
Senators ownership and management is withholding comment on the Coyotes' situation.
Bryden is not.
He said people should not judge the NHL, assuming it does not want a second team in southern Ontario.
Rather, the league should be praised for attempting to maintain existing franchises, Bryden said.
"Instead of people saying the big, bad NHL doesn't want another Canadian franchise, people should be looking at these rules and how they work for the Canadian franchises especially.
"The league gives preference to the communities where the team is very important. The league cares about cities that put their heart and souls into supporting the franchises. It doesn't want teams moving to another city just because that city will provide the highest bid. Ottawa is one of the markets very much protected by these rules.
"That's really what the league is going to court to fight for. If a team is just allowed to go to where the highest bid is, who's next? Edmonton? Calgary?
"Why not buy the Ottawa team and move it to somewhere it may be more valuable? Why not buy the Edmonton team and move it? You can't use bankruptcy to dodge the league rules.
"That said, Jim Balsillie would be a marvellous new owner. He would be a great addition."
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