When the announcement was made a few weeks ago that Jim Balsillie had entered into an agreement to purchase the Nashville Predators, speculation immediately began that a relocation to South Ontario would come in short order, and many hockey fans in the Nashville area jumped to the conclusion that we'd see a "Major League" scenario, whereby the new owner would deliberately undermine local support of the team so as to trigger the escape clause in the team's arena lease. As for myself, I decided to give Mr. Balsillie the benefit of the doubt - surely as a lifelong hockey fan and player, he wouldn't do such a thing after acquiring one of the best young teams in the game, with the Stanley Cup potentially within reach.
I've waited and watched over recent weeks, and was initially encouraged by Balsillie's promise to field a competitive team, giving GM David Poile an ample budget to put together the best team possible. His legal representative Richard Rodier assured any and all questioners that their courtship of the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton was merely a contingency plan, just in case the lease terminated prematurely. Frankly, I agree that such precautions are justified, as the question of whether Nashville hits the 14,000 paid attendance mark might not be answered until late next spring, leaving only a few months to relocate the team for 2008-9, so lining up Copps as a fallback now is entirely reasonable.
Today's news, however, makes abundantly clear that Mr. Balsillie is doing much more than arranging contingencies, and is instead actively working towards the relocation of the franchise. As reported on TSN.ca this evening, effective tomorrow he'll be accepting season-ticket deposits in Hamilton before he even owns an NHL team, let alone one that is available or approved to relocate. Is this the sort of owner you want in the NHL?
Mr. Bettman, this is clearly a case where "actions speak louder than words." Mr. Balsillie has said all the right things about honoring the Predators' lease with the city of Nashville and giving things an honest shot, but this latest development couldn't make it any clearer that he has absolutely no intention of keeping the team here, period. The local business community in Nashville has launched an effort to increase season ticket sales (found at www.ourteamnashville.com) without any input or comment from Mr. Balsillie, who states readily that the franchise is still Craig Leipold's, so he's not in the position to offer comment. Yet somehow he's in a position to start taking deposits in Hamilton for a team he doesn't own, and isn't free to move at this time? That's simply absurd.
As demonstrated in the recent rumors regarding expansion to Las Vegas and Kansas City, there are a number of interested, well-heeled parties that would love to join the ranks of NHL ownership. Admitting Mr. Balsillie into those ranks would only grant license to the most callous and deceitful practices of big-time sports ownership, and potentially undermine other NHL owners who wish to negotiate with their host cities for new arenas. Why would a city enter a long-term deal with an NHL owner if they have reason to fear that they'll act in the manner Mr. Balsillie is now?
I hope you and the Board of Governors take your time and do a thorough review of what Mr. Balsillie is proposing in terms of his purchase agreement and relocation request - and at the same time, remember that no matter what he and his representatives are saying, it's their actions that belie their real purpose.
Dirk Hoag, aka The Forechecker