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NHL's fingerprints all over its damaged credibility

Remember back, way, way back, to those happy times when the death throes of the Phoenix Coyotes were but a nasty newspaper rumour.

Pish posh, those who run the NHL said. Everything is just fine. Irresponsible journalism is to blame. And pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Then, when it became just too obvious the team's majority owner, Jerry Moyes, was looking for a way out, having tired of absorbing tens of millions of dollars in annual operating losses, the official story changed ever so slightly.

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Have no fear, the league said through its loyal minions. There are rich folks lined up to buy the 'Yotes. If they can only get a decent lease in Glendale - the parking revenue alone would make a huge difference - the team will be profitable and thrive.

Moyes, shockingly, believed none of that. Seeing that his future lay beneath the wheels of a bus, that his partners were preparing to deliver his NHL team into the hands of Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and leave Moyes with only a significantly slimmer wallet to show for his tenure in big-time professional sports, he opted for bankruptcy, and for the soft landing promised by Canadian tycoon Jim Balsillie.

Still, no worries, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. In a sworn affidavit, he assured the court that bids would be pouring in any minute - not just from Reinsdorf, but from the guys who (sort of) own the Toronto Argonauts, and a host of others, all believers in the bright future of professional hockey in the Valley of the Sun.

And now?

Reinsdorf is gone, unable to convince Glendale to fork over $23-million (U.S.) a year in annual operating subsidies, give him an out clause and offer up all of the city's first-born children. Plus, he didn't seem to much enjoy the transparency that comes with the legal process.

The only bidder for the Coyotes now other than Balsillie, the Antichrist whose nefarious plans to move the team to Hamilton must be thwarted, and perhaps a group that wants to play some home games in Saskatoon, is the league itself - the other 29 teams who will ante up to try to win the bankruptcy auction, ante up again to cover the certain massive operating losses of the coming season and then deliver the franchise into the hands of … wait for it … someone who might well relocate it.

Balsillie has certainly done some things wrong during the process that began with his bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins way back when. (Most recently, he implied that Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is a crook, or at least a crook-lite, thus forever alienating an NHL owner who has precious little love for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and might derive some enjoyment from the torment a second Southern Ontario franchise would cause the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

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But a couple of things, Balsillie and his advisers have got right.

Bankruptcy court, they knew, would be an uncomfortable place for the NHL to try and do business in its time-honoured, backroom fashion. And in the current environment, given the Coyotes' sorry business history, they believed from Day 1 that no one was going to come up with real money to buy the team without the assurance of a one-way ticket out of town.

That's exactly what's going to happen.

Either U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Redfield T. Baum will hold his nose and opt for Balsillie, opening up a legal can of worms which the judge would desperately love to avoid, or the league will win the day one way or another, it will pay lip service to Arizona, and then deliver the franchise to someone who has been given first dibs on Kansas City or Las Vegas or Katmandu.

What a splendid mess. And all of it could have been avoided if the NHL had simply acknowledged Moyes's troubles a year ago, opted to work with him and his creditors, and dealt with the embarrassment of admitting that not everything was rosy with every franchise in the depths of a recession.

Instead, Bettman and company opted to make an end run, opted to preserve the illusion of universal well-being at all costs and, in the process, wildly underestimated the tenacity of the opposition.

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The end point would have been the same in either case. That was inevitable.

But the damage done to the league's credibility was entirely avoidable. Blame the guy at the top if you choose, which is way too easy, or blame those who pay his salary.

There's certainly no missing their fingerprints.

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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