1. Maple Leafs play the corporate left-wing lock
Front of the line in opposing an NHL team in Hamilton would be the biggest, richest NHL franchise of them all - the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"We believe there is a process where we could prevent a team coming into our market," said a source close to the board of the franchise's owner, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "Just like teams in New York could prevent a fourth team coming there, and we would pursue that process to the fullest extent possible. The reasons are obvious. If you owned Tim Hortons and someone wanted to open a doughnut shop across the street, you would do what you could to oppose it. It's just smart business."
However, the NHL constitution is a tricky document when it comes to franchise relocation, especially when it pertains to movement into the territory of an existing club.
Do clubs have the right to veto a move into their territory?
Section 4.3 of the constitution states, among other things, "No franchise shall be granted for a home territory within the home territory of a member without the written consent of that member."
But the league has a different interpretation.
"There is no single-vote veto to a relocation," NHL vice-president Bill Daly said, citing the league's Bylaw 36 which states that on advice of counsel the NHL uses a simple majority to approve or turn down franchise relocation, above and beyond provisions in its constitution that might indicate teams have veto power.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has applied the majority vote for all relocations during his tenure and is on record as saying a majority vote would be applied to any relocation to Southern Ontario.
But either way, the league may have considerable incentive to not have that matter tested.
"It may be better for the league to prevent [a move into Hamilton]in a way that did not come to a vote," a legal source familiar with the situation said. "The NHL doesn't know how challenges to the territorial situation and vote would go. You can look at former cases, but you really never know, and I don't think Bettman wants to find out."
2. The Nashville Predators' Lease
Disputes regarding the Nashville Predators' lease may yet become problematic for anyone wishing to buy and relocate the team.
But the NHL insists it alone precluded approving relocation as part of a binding agreement between Balsillie and Predators owner Craig Leipold. The NHL believes providing consent to relocate while the lease in Nashville was still in existence constitutes "tortuous interference with contractual relations," thus opening it up to legal action.
Only with a lease that was expiring or could be broken unilaterally would the NHL consider approving relocation as part of a sale.
"Arguably, it could be considered in that context, but that's not the Nashville lease," Daly said.
Balsillie's side sees the NHL position as a way to prevent his bid from going forward to the board of governors.
Especially since owner Craig Leipold triggered an exit to the lease last month by announcing the team would relocate after 2007-08 unless it averages 14,000 fans a game.
"To suggest that the league is at risk by granting a consent to relocation that is conditional on the occurrence of an event that is specifically contemplated under the terms of the lease, and has been triggered unilaterally by the owner of the team, is not credible," Balsillie's lawyer, Richard Rodier, said.
"This is merely a tactic for the league to avoid dealing with the issue as they promised to do."
3. No go for hat trick of teams
The NHL is well aware Southern Ontario represents the biggest, richest hockey market in the world. And so if it was interested in having three teams within 150 kilometres of each other, wouldn't it have led that process?
On the contrary. The league seems as if it couldn't be less interested in a second team for Southern Ontario and is presumably much more willing to explore the next "new" hockey market than to go where the game has proved its appeal over and over again.
They also may be leery of what a Hamilton team would do to the Buffalo Sabres."We don't have [a policy on a second team in Southern Ontario]and we've never really been asked to study the issue and we've never done any amount of work on it," Daly said. "So we don't have an official position."
Balsillie's group maintains that only about 10 per cent of the Sabres' support comes from Canada. Its ability to exceed 14,000 deposits for season tickets would suggest a Hamilton team would be well-supported.
"To the extent the commissioner has said he wants to maximize hockey revenues and they have an obligation to the NHL Players' Association to do so, I'd think it's very much in the interest of the NHL to put a team in a market that would clearly be successful," Rodier said.
4. Gary Bettman is anti-Canadian
During various times over his 14-plus years as the NHL commissioner, Bettman has been hailed as both a hero and a villain on this side of the border. When Quebec City and Winnipeg departed for Colorado and Phoenix, Bettman was vilified for doing little to stop it. And while he played hero to Canadian fans during the lockout, he's once again being accused of taking an anti-Canadian stand where the Predators are concerned.
Rodier, who suggested in a newspaper story last week that the NHL commissioner is simply opposed to another team in Canada, believes Bettman is not concerned with the NHL in Canada.
"Based on the evidence that I've seen throughout his incumbency, not at all," Rodier said.
The NHL suggests the notion that its commissioner has an anti-Canadian bias as ridiculous.
"We recognize that some of our most successful franchises right now are Canadian-based, in terms of local interest and the like," Daly said.
"If it's something that from a league perspective would add value from the league equation and the Canadian marketplace is the right place to go, we'd be the first in line to get there."
5. Was Balsillie really serious about purchasing the Predators?
Having failed in his attempt to secure the Pittsburgh Penguins last fall, there are those who believe Balsillie knew he had no chance of relocating the Nashville Predators to Southern Ontario.
His tactics of securing a lease in Hamilton and putting season tickets on sale without the NHL's prior knowledge were viewed as questionable by many as a means to secure smooth entry into the league.
"I've seen all kinds of franchises change hands and it never happens like this," one source said.
Those same tactics were aimed at satisfying the NHL's requirements for potential franchise relocation. Meanwhile, the failure of his eye-popping $238-million bid does raise questions about why the high bidder has been frozen out.
All of which some might see as the basis of a lawsuit to sue the NHL for restraint of trade.
Rodier denies Balsillie's strategy has anything to do with suing the NHL.
"We have absolutely no plans to commence any lawsuit," Rodier said.
Jan 12: Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold says he is looking to sell up to 40 per cent of his team to local investors, simultaneously scoffing at speculation the team could be sold and relocated.
Feb 26: Talks begin between Leipold and Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie on the sale of the Predators.
May 23: Leipold announces an agreement in principle to sell the Predators to Jim Balsillie for a reported $240-million (U.S.).
May 24: The National Hockey League meets with Balsillie, at which time it claims to have said it might be willing to consider relocation of the franchise at some point in the future - but not while the Predators were still bound by a lease in Nashville.
May 30: Hamilton city council passes a motion to negotiate an arena lease for the Copps Coliseum with Golden Horseshoe Sports & Entertainment, a company owned by Balsillie.
June 11: Balsillie submits an application for franchise ownership to the NHL that includes an application to relocate the team to Hamilton.
June 13: The NHL cancels a meeting with Balsillie scheduled for June 19, after which he was to make a presentation to the NHL board of governors.
June 14: Balsillie begins taking deposits on season tickets and suites for NHL hockey in Hamilton.
June 15: Leipold triggers an exit clause in his lease by announcing the Predators can leave Nashville at the end of the 2007-08 season if they fail to average 14,000 fans a game next season.
June 20: The NHL's board of governors provides an update of the Predators' situation at a meeting, but does not discuss the team's potential move to Hamilton.
June 22: Leipold sends a letter to the NHL asking that it not do any more due diligence on Balsillie's offer to buy the Predators until a binding agreement is reached.
June 25: Leipold informs Balsillie he intends to consider other offers for the Predators, including one reportedly worth $190-million from Boots Del Baggio, who owns the rights to land an NHL team for Kansas City.
July 5: A group of Nashville businessmen come forth with a bid to buy the Predators and keep them in the Music City.