By Evan Weiner
May 23, 2009
4:30 PM EDT
(New York, N. Y.) -- To those editorial or opinion writers at the Toronto Globe and Mail, the War of 1812 ended nearly two centuries ago and you know what, Canada won. But if you are among those who still read newspaper editorials, as if newspaper opinion pieces have any relevancy anymore and frankly the sad truth is they don't, the Globe and Mail guys apparently think National Hockey League Commissioner is lobbying bombs into Manitoba instead of just protecting his league as Jim Basillie is attempting a hostile takeover of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and moving the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario.
The whole sordid mess is being played out before a bankruptcy judge in Phoenix, Arizona and there could very well be other fronts in what has become a full scale sports league skirmish that Basillie and Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes are conducting against the National Hockey League and probably against the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. Basillie has also drawn the wrath of two United States Senators and the town of Glendale, Arizona is about ready to unleash a lawsuit protecting the city from losing the Coyotes with decades left on the lease between the NHL team and the municipality in the building that was paid by taxpayers. More on that later, first things first, it is time to examine newspapers and how journalists in Canada have become cheerleaders for Basillie.
The Globe and Mail editorialists have accused the NHL and Bettman of a "slap" in the face of Canadians and Basillie by attempting to block the sale of the Phoenix hockey franchise to Basillie. It is the latest in a long line of criticisms of Bettman by the Canadian media who have been ticked off for years that a "New York lawyer" has been in charge of the league. In some instances, the "New York lawyer" could be viewed as a code for something else. Perhaps Canadian hockey writers and Jesse Jackson can compare notes about people who live in New York City and the city's suburban areas. For the record, this writer is a life long New Yorker, born in Manhattan, lived in Queens, Ramapo (Jackson and the Canadian writers would have a blast there) and Westchester. There has always been an underlying tone in prose from Canada about the "New York lawyer."
At last look, Bettman wasn't leading a group ready to invade Manitoba nor was he part of the Fenian Raids of Canada between 1866 and 1871 nor did he call Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a swine or a worm or an upstart (you have to watch Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers to understand that line, but Rufus T. Firefly did smack Trentino across the face after being called an upstart). The New York lawyer also made sure that Edmonton maintained an NHL franchise in the late 1990s but the Globe and Mail has equated Bettman to rogue status while forgetting that Balsillie owes all of his riches to Canadian taxpayers who funded BlackBerry research and that Basillie has become so used to living on taxpayers handouts that he asked Hamilton city officials for money to renovate the city's arena and got it.
Perhaps it is that editorial thinking that has landed newspapers in dire straits fiscally although it is more likely that newspaper publishers ignored the evolving technology and never thought a recession would sink the industry. While Basillie and Hamilton politicians were exchanging wedding vows to provide high cost entertainment, Canadian Auto Workers were coming to terms with the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies. The auto workers make up a chunk of Ontario's workforce. Some of them hockey fans who if they lose their jobs can follow the Hamilton or the Southern Ontario team on cable TV, radio or websites which provide quicker access to information than say the stately old Globe and Mail. Some of those out of work former auto maker employees may see some of their future taxes go to pay off repairs for an arena they may never step into for Basillie's hockey team. The same Basillie who has become a billionaire with their financial help. Basillie played by the rules with BlackBerry, but Canadian journalists should be pointing out facts instead of being infatuated with the technology genius.
Canadian newspapers have been acting like teenagers in love with the Basillie moving the Phoenix franchise to Southern Ontario trek. American sports pages are ignoring what will be the biggest sports story of the year, and probably sports biggest case since Cleveland Mayor Mike White and the Cleveland city council threatened to sue the National Football League in 1996 following Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell's relocation of his football team to Baltimore with three years left on the Browns-Cleveland lease at the city's stadium.
White and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked out a deal whereby Cleveland would drop a lawsuit and would build a new football facility. Cleveland was promised a new team and the city retained the team's name, the Browns, the team logo and colors and the team record book. Cleveland got an expansion franchise in 1999.
The inclusion of New York's two United States Senators in this battle of sports is rather interesting because New York and Ontario are sizeable trading partners but the relocation of the Phoenix team to Hamilton, which is not far from Buffalo might impact Buffalo Sabres tickets, advertising revenues and could seriously harm the franchise in what is a very weakened economic area, western New York State. Buffalo cannot make it without Canadians attending games; the NFL's Buffalo Bills have regionalized the franchise by holding training camp in Rochester and scheduling games in Toronto. The National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League do not enjoy the same antitrust exemption that Major League Baseball was given by the United States Supreme Court in 1922. Could Senators Charles Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand introduce legislation, which certainly would be welcomed by Bettman, NBA Commissioner David Stern and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell along with their owners that would strengthen league's by-laws to make sure leagues are in control of where they place franchises and who owns teams?
Oddly enough, the Globe and Mail has not come out against Canadian protectionism of the Canadian Football League. In the 1970s, the World Football League, which lasted one and half seasons, wanted to put a team in Toronto for the 1974 season and Canadian lawmakers threatened to make sure any American football league would never play in Canada. Parliament never pursued the protectionism after John Bassett moved the Toronto franchise to Memphis.
Bettman and his legal team have NHL owners saying no to Basillie's buyout, they have drawn Congressional interest, they have MLB, the NBA and NFL on their side and the city of Glendale will unleash a major lawsuit to make sure taxpayers, the people ultimately responsible for paying the debt on the city owned facility protected. Glendale claims it is owed a $700 million fee if the hockey team is moved as the lease between the league and the team has 26 years remaining. This should be a troubling notion to all of the cities and municipalities across the United States who have spent billions upon billions of dollars for new sports facilities. If Moyes can declare bankruptcy and just sell off the assets and get out of paying the lease, who will be next? Taxpayers need protection as well and a Glendale suit should be avidly watched by every municipality which forked over money either in building a facility, or in granting programs like payment in lieu of taxes or tax incremental funding.
Of course the Globe and Mail, the paper that accused Bettman of slapping Canadians and Basillie in the face, has sportswriters like Allan Maki covering the business end of hockey. Mr. Maki sounds like Rush Limbaugh in hoping Bettman fails in court and that will be the end of his term. Of course a hockey writer doesn’t understand the nuisances of owners meetings and that Bettman is just doing what the owners want him to do. Mr. Maki needs to study sports league and history or maybe ask Fay Vincent what happens when owners fall out of love with their commissioner. Fay Vincent was fired by the Lords of Baseball although technically Vincent resigned after owners voted 18-9 that they had no confidence in him in 1992. One of those owners who said no, Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the man who wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes.
Mr. Maki needs to understand that until Los Angeles Kings owner Phil Anschutz and others are done with Bettman, he will stay on the job. Of course Maki is a writer for the Globe and Mail, a haughty position within the newspaper community and perhaps he is preaching to his fellow Canadian hockey writers in calling for Bettman's ouster. At least Mr. Maki didn't call him the "New York lawyer."
By the way, Mr. Maki did not mention that the NHL is a more than $2 billion a year business. He mentioned the United States cable TV contract with Versus. Mr. Maki, like many of his fellow writers in Canada, fails to understand that ESPN did not want NHL games and Versus stepped in with some money. Perhaps someone who understands the cable TV business would be better served as a critic but the Globe and Mail has a hockey writer.
The Toronto Sun also wants Bettman to go. Another newspaper editorial about his lack of getting a major TV deal in the United States. Across Canada, Bettman is seen as an enemy of the people, at least in the eyes of the media.
Of course the Globe and Mail editorial page, the Maki column and the Toronto Sun no confidence vote mean nothing except to create some chatter on radio talk shows and cable TV in Canada. The only person who counts is Phoenix Bankruptcy Judge Redfield Baum and this all goes back to bankruptcy, Jerry Moyes filed Chapter 11 and wants to cut his losses. Moyes owns the Coyotes franchise but does he really run the team is the first piece of this puzzle. The NHL apparently was paying the bills starting in November 2008, not Moyes. The second part of the puzzle is simple. Does the NHL have the right to govern itself? There are many instances in sports where the leagues have said no to prospective owners. In 1983, Ralston Purina had enough of owning the St. Louis Blues National Hockey League franchise and sold it to Saskatoon interests led by Bill Hunter. The NHL refused to let the sale of the relocation of the franchise go ahead and found another owner to take over in St. Louis. In 1994, the NBA blocked the move of the Minnesota franchise to New Orleans and found a local owner. In Major League Baseball during the 1970s, owners blocked the relocation of the San Francisco Giants to Toronto and the Oakland A's to Denver. In the 1980s, the Lords of Baseball twice refused to allow Texas Rangers owner Eddie Chiles to sell his team to Edwin Gaylord because of the fear that Gaylord would launch a cable TV superstation in Dallas. Chiles eventually sold his team to a group fronted by the son of the United States President at the time in 1989, George W. Bush. The rest is history.
Hockey is a sensitive subject for Canadians. It is a way of life. Hockey's biggest names, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull never played NHL games with Toronto or Montreal back in the day and there is something still wrong some 37 years later that Bobby Hull was not allowed to play for Team Canada against the Soviet Union in the biggest global hockey series in the sports history because he signed with a World Hockey Association team, Winnipeg, and left the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks. Business is business after all.
The bankruptcy case, the Glendale lawsuit, the United States Senate intervention, the threat of subsequent lawsuits may keep going and going with the real winners being the lawyers with billable hours. The real loser here is journalism, the globally respected Globe and Mail being reduced to a puerile state with lines that seemingly came out of a 1933 Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup. Perhaps both the Canadian and American media really need to have a broad introspective look and see where they lost their way in virtually everything they cover, but they again about 110 years ago, William Randolph Hearst invented a war, the Spanish American War where people died. Fortunately in this case, no one is in peril, Glendale may lose a hockey team or may not, life will go on no matter even for the editorial writers at the Toronto Globe and Mail and Sun Media and the Toronto Sun and a good number or Canadian journalists who are wearing their Team Canada shirts because they want Basillie to bring home a hockey team. It is just business, nothing personal.