By Scott Gilmour
Last year I wrote a column comparing the plight of the Seattle Sonics to the heartbreaking loss of my own hometown team, the Winnipeg Jets. (as an aside, this column was subsequently duplicated, with credit mind you, on a WNBA blog; I ask you, is there any prouder experience a writer could have than seeing his work appear on a blog devoted to the WNBA, to be read by literally tens of people? I say no…). Having written that column, I felt that I had exercised some of the demons created by the loss of my team and could now wash my hands of the Jets/Coyotes. Unfortunately, events of late have conspired to eradicate any hope I may have had had of happily being an N.H.L. nomad. To quote from what has to be the third greatest movie about the Corleone family ever directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather III, “I thought I was done; but then they pulled me back in.”
The “they” in this case are the Phoenix Coyotes (the former Winnipeg Jets) and their owner Jerry Moyes. The growing conflict in Phoenix is a major story in Canada and has received some attention in the U.S. from the usual suspects (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc). However, I would imagine that most Americans saw the word “hockey” in the title and immediately searched for stories about the N.B.A. Finals, pre-pre-voluntary N.F.L. minicamps, the Westminster Dog Show, or whatever else you guys look at on sports websites instead of hockey. Summarized briefly, Mr. Moyes, apparently upset about losing tens of millions of dollars on a hockey team during the worst economic period of the last eighty years, decided to jump into the warm confines of Chapter 11. He did this in order to sell the Coyotes to the highest bidder, thus circumventing the N.H.L.-approved channels for doing so. You would think that Moyes would be the villain in this scenario; a rich guy decides to screw over his fanbase by putting the team up for sale on the open market, virtually guaranteeing relocation. All of the stereotypical villain boxes have been checked off (minus the three-piece suit with spats and a large cigar; although I doubt you could role with the three-piece in the desert). Nonetheless, not only is Moyes not the villain here, he actually manages to come across as a semi-sympathetic figure. The next candidate for the “villain role” is Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie (of BlackBerry fame), the outsider who has offered substantially more than the next highest bidder for the team. Unlike our boy Clay Bennett in Seattle, he hasn’t even pretended that he would try to keep the team in Phoenix. In fact, his offer to purchase is conditional on him being able to move the Jets/Coyotes within the next year to Hamilton, Ontario (effectively a suburb of Toronto in Southern Ontario). Yet it is not Mr. Balsillie that should be the object of our contempt.
No, the villain here is the N.H.L., and by “N.H.L.”, I mean the Commissioner, Gary Bettman. What does Gary have to do with it? In his infinite wisdom, he has decided to fight tooth-and-nail to keep the unloved Coyotes in Phoenix. This is, of course, fifteen years after he did anything in his power to take the much-loved Jets out of Winnipeg. The legality of Bettman’s arguments are too large a matter to be discussed here; however, a simple analysis of a number of general facts dictate that not only should the Coyotes move, but the N.H.L. should be chasing them out of town like Michael Vick from a Pets 101.
Fact: The vast majority of North America’s hockey fans reside in Canada (despite the fact that 80% of N.H.L. teams are located in the United States and the population differential between the two countries is massive).
Fact: Nobody in Phoenix, or anywhere in the Sun Belt for that matter, gives two craps about the N.H.L. or the Coyotes. Not only is the born out by the attendance figures, but I actually sat next to a youth hockey team from Phoenix on a flight this year and none, repeat none of them had ever been to a Coyotes game. Given that 14 year-old hockey players are one of the target markets for a hockey team in the desert, this doesn’t say much for the Coyotes fan support.
Fact: The New York market has three N.H.L. teams while Toronto has one despite hockey being a fourth tier sport in New York and the sport in Toronto.
Fact: Southern Ontario has a population of over 12 million people, while the Greater Phoenix Metro Area has a population of around 4 million (and, as mentioned, the vast majority of the 4 million couldn’t care less about hockey).
Fact: There has been exactly one N.H.L. player in history that was born in Arizona and he played a grand total of three (3) career games for the L.A. Kings in the early ‘80’s (http://www.legendsofhockey.net:8080/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayersByCountry.jsp?co=USAZ). Several thousand players come from Southern Ontario. Try popularizing a sport where NOBODY plays it. On top of that, the one Arizona player’s name was Jim Brown; the chances of associating hockey with that name in the U.S. are similar to the odds of it turning out that Ron Mercer is the reincarnation of Christ.
Fact: The burning wreckage that is the U.S. economy should mean that the N.H.L. would be thrilled to attract Canadian investors, given the relatively healthy state of the Canadian economy compared to the rest of the world. Instead, they’ve repeatedly turned Balsillie away.
Fact: The most valuable franchise in the N.H.L. is the Toronto Maple Leafs. The biggest rivalry in hockey is Ottawa vs. Toronto. Any business major could spot the revenue opportunities associated with putting another team in the Greater Toronto Area from a mile away (except, obviously, those that work for the N.H.L.).
Despite all these factors, the N.H.L. is pulling out all the stops in order to keep the team in Phoenix, including releasing the previously secret League Constitution and allowing the name of the greatest player in the sport’s history to be dragged through the mud (the Head Coach of the Coyotes is Wayne Gretzky). To say that this is nonsensical would be to do a disservice to the ineptitude of Bettman & Co.
The next question for a reasonable person would be to ask whether I am being unfair with my analysis. Hold on, this reasonable person would ask; isn’t Gary Bettman an Ivy League graduate with a law degree from NYU? He must have a legitimate reason for over-looking the factors mentioned above. To that I can only give you my personal opinion of Mr. Bettman as a lifetime hockey fan. After my initial fury over his decision to allow the relocation of my beloved Jets from the ‘Peg to the desert, my attitude toward Bettman slowly mellowed into something resembling Tom Cruise’s attitude towards Dustin Hoffman during the first half of “Rainman”: I was frustrated and angry at a lot of the things he did, but I understood that there were some clear mental limitations in play. You know that your reign as commissioner has been particularly successful when a legit mate comparison can be made to the Rainman before he went to the casino in Vegas. However, his conduct of late has forced me to move beyond that, bringing me to openly wonder how it is that no Canadian hockey fan has at least made an attempt at assassination. Now, I’m not saying that I want someone to go Rae Carruth on him (if only to avoid a visit from law enforcement officials). However, should he be hit by a bus crossing 7th Avenue, I would take it as a clear indication that a Divine Being does exist. The N.H.L. has gone from the clear number four sport in the United States, with games televised on major networks, to a position where they’re fighting with NASCAR, UFC and Ladies Cricket for viewers on a channel called “Versus” that shows otherwise shows reruns of Survivor. In light of this, how can I trust Bettman to do the right thing at this stage? He has lost all benefit of the doubt.
In conclusion, I hope that I have raised awareness about this piece of news concerning my ex-team south of the border. Furthermore, I would like to thank Gary Bettman for exhuming and subsequently further defiling the carcass of my hometown team, allowing the disparagement of my childhood hero (The Great One, Wayne Gretzky) and putting up double-barrelled middle digits towards my country. Keep in mind that these are simply the ills Bettman has done beyond driving what was once my favourite sport into the ground. At this point, I am actively rooting for Isiah Thomas to take over the Commissioner’s job in a palace coup. All of this comes despite the fact that I have given up on the Jets/Coyotes ever returning to Winnipeg. I am, however, a proud Canadian and thus returning the team to the Great White North would be at least a leap in the right direction. It may not fully reverse the Bas Rutten-esque “stab to the liver” the original loss of the team was, however it may at least reduce the pain to falling more along the lines of the aforementioned Mr. Rutten’s “heel to the balls”. (Note: If these references are lost on you, click on the following link for the You Tube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3K-mrlYG7Y; I’m pretty sure that’s what Vin Diec looks like in real life. Am I right Vin?). It still hurts to have lost the team, but at least they would no longer be pissing on the memory of the Jets by having them play in the desert with no attendance. The CEOs of Enron, General Motors, AIG and Bear Stearns deserve to be fired less than Gary Bettman and I ask all readers to do what they can to see that the long-overdue axe falls. Perhaps when it does you can give me a call, Gary; I might be able to use my newfound WNBA connections to find you a job. It’s not like you could screw that league up any more than it already is.