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Bruce Dowbiggin

Coyotes Ugly: The Sad Obsession Of Gary Bettman

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It came to this. Playing in the 6,000 seat Mullet Arena on the campus of Arizona State. Owned by a luckless guy who eschewed the public spotlight. Out of the playoffs, their bags packed for who knows where, the Arizona (née Phoenix) Coyotes gave an appreciative wave to the tiny crowd gathered to say  Thanks For The Memories.

With that they were history. Although NHL commissioner-for-life Gary Bettman has promised the last in a set of hapless owners that he can revive the franchise for a cool billion should he build the rink that no one was willing to build for the Yotes the past 20 years.

The Arizona Republic said good riddance. “Metro Phoenix lost the Coyotes because we are an oversaturated professional and college sports market with an endless supply of sunshine and recreational choices. Arizona may have dodged a slapshot:

We have the NFL Cardinals, the MLB Diamondbacks, the NBA Suns, MLB spring training, the WM Phoenix Open, the Phoenix Rising, the WNBA Mercury, the Indoor Football League Rattlers and the Arizona State Sun Devils. There hasn’t been a household name on the Coyotes since Shane Doan, and half of Phoenix probably doesn’t know who he was”.

Likely they’ll be a financial success in Salt Lake City where there’s a viable owner, lots of money and a will to make it work. They’ll need a will because— stop me if you’ve heard this before about the Coyotes—  the rink they’ll play in this fall has only 12,500 unobstructed views for hockey.

Watching this farce we recalled getting a call from Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie in 2008, shortly after our book Money Players was a finalist for the Canadian Business Book of The Year. We’d written a fair bit about the Coyotes in our work and someone had told Balsillie we might be the ones to talk to about a plan he was concocting to buy the bankrupt Coyotes and eventually move them to Hamilton.

Balsillie was salty over the way he’d been used as a stalking horse in the financial troubles of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990s. Flush with money from the huge success of RIM, Balsillie offered to buy the Pens, with an eye to moving them to southern Ontario if Pittsburgh didn’t help build a new arena for the team.

In time, Balsillie saw that Bettman was only trying to protect the investment Mario Lemieux and others had in the Pens. Balsillie was the black hat who eventually spooked Pittsburgh into giving the current owners what they wanted. At the end of the day, Mario got his money and Balsillie was given a “thanks for trying”: parting gift of nebulous promises.

Still smarting, Balsille vowed not to be used again. in his desire to bring the NHL to southern Ontario. So when the Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes threw the keys to the team on Bettman’s desk, he saw an opening in the bankruptcy that followed. Seeing Bettman as the impediment, Balsillie decided to buy the team out of bankruptcy, a process the NHL could not legally prevent.

What Balsillie wanted to know was “What then? How would Bettman fight back?” We told him that no one flouts Bettman’s authority within the NHL. (All the current owners since 1993 have come aboard on his watch.)  And that he’d have to get the Board of Governors to approve his purchase. Odds: Nil.

That’s what happened. Rather than admit that the Valley of the Sun was poisoned for hockey, Bettman found another series of undercapitalized marks to front the franchise while the league quietly propped up the operation. No longer was the Coyotes’  failure about the fans of Arizona. It was about Gary Bettman’s pride.

Protestors stand outside a press conference in Tempe featuring Arizona Coyotes executives discussing propositions related to a new arena and entertainment district. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

Where he had meekly let Atlanta move to Winnipeg he fought like hell to save Arizona. And his power. (His obstinacy on U.S. network TV is another story.)

Fast forward to last week and the abject failure of that process. The Arizona Republic naively fawned on Bettman for his many attempts to save the team. In fact, they were just attempts to buttress his grip on the league. While the Coyotes may have been a mess, Bettman has succeeded in preserving the investments of most of the business people who bought his NHL business prospectus.

Sometimes it meant riding into Calgary to chastise the locals for their parsimony in not giving the Flames a new rink. Ditto for Edmonton. Ditto for Winnipeg  and other cities. Other times it was to shore up weak partners to protect the equity of other prosperous cities.  Sometimes it was to tell Quebec City, “Not gonna’ happen.”

For his loyalty to the owners and through some luck— Gretzky to the Kings— Bettman has made the NHL work in places no one might’ve imagined. Nashville. Raleigh. Tampa. Las Vegas. Dallas. Not at the level of the NFL, NBA or MLB, but at a comfortable equity-affirming status. Nothing happens without his say-so in the NHL. Or without him getting credit. Secondary NHL execs who wanted credit for their innovations were quietly punted.

When Houston finally gets a franchise from Gary they’ll part with $1.5 billion for the honour. While the commissioner has played down new franchises and expanded playoffs, you can bet your last dollar that he’s told owners they’re in line for more expansion cash— cash they don’t have to split with players in collective bargaining.

One more certainty. As long as Bettman rules the NHL you won’t see an NHL team back in Arizona.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via brucedowbigginbooks.ca.

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Stanley Cup In Canada? All That Glitters Is Not Silver

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For Canada’s glittering NHL prizes, the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, time is short. Having reaped a harvest of top draft picks through persistent losing they now sit atop the NHL, ready for a championship. The Oilers are still in the Western Conference championship series, battling Dallas in what seems like an even matchup. We’ll see.

Toronto, as we know, expired ignominiously in the opening round versus a very average Boston team. Knowing that their window is closing the Leafs fired coach Sheldon Keefe in favour of no-nonsense Craig Berube. But their wobbly balance between offence and defence remains to be exploited by opponents. It is exacerbated by the huge amounts paid to their Core Four Auston Matthews ($13.25), William Nylander ($11.5), Mitch Marner ($10.9) and John Tavares ($11 M).

That was lost in the relief of Toronto signing Matthews last August. Alas, despite Matthews netting 69 goals in the regular season, it was not enough. We suggested as much at the time:

1) While Matthews has yet to prove he can lead the Leafs anywhere but a golf course come May, he remains their best hope for any assault on the 56-year Stanley Cup drought. It might be a stretch to say the 40-plus-goal scorer in the regular season led them to their first postseason series win last April against Tampa. Patrice Bergeron he ain’t. But he didn’t hold them back, either. Not every Leafs star can say that. 

He’s at a point (26) where a number of NHL stars have morphed from stats producers to win producers. Bryan Trottier, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Vincent Lecavalier are a sampling of guys who added leadership their tool box in mid-career and went on to multiple Cups. We will see if Auston does likewise.

2) Matthews’ decision to remain in a Canadian city is a huge relief for the league which has recently seen American stars abandon or ignore Canadian cities for the lure of their home country. Indeed, Matthews would likely have gotten all the perks of this deal elsewhere— plus the anonymity of being an NHL player in a city obsessed by the NFL, NBA or MLB. He could’ve maxxed his take-home pay going to one of the NHL teams benefitting from no-state-income-tax. And the NHL would get a huge problem with Canadian fans.

As Canada’s economy wobbles and players have a choice on lifestyle, Matthews’ decision to live in the Toronto fish bowl means that at least one CDN team is relevant. And, let’s be honest, he has a chance of winning the Cup that he wouldn’t in six other CDN teams. If that doesn’t pan out his contract is movable should he desire to move on before 2028.

3) Speaking of relief, getting the deal done is a break for new Toronto GM Brad Treliving. It was he who, as Flames GM, had to negotiate the escape of Americans Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary. Had he not been able to retain Matthews in Canada’s largest market it would have not been a job enhancer. Now, he has to find a way to squeeze all Toronto’s glamour boys— hello William Nylander— under the cap and leave room for what they still need. Good luck, Brad.

4) Matthews’ commitment to Toronto means that a number of teams who’ve been delaying bold moves and hoarding trade bait in anticipation of his potential trade or UFA market can now move to Plan B. There were a number of U.S. teams poised to offer the Leafs the moon and stars— NHL version— at the trade deadline or to sign him next summer. This should now signal some activity by teams anxious to deal.

Ironically, the Leafs used to be that team waiting for a Toronto Moses to emerge in the UFA market. Remember Brian Burke’s unseemly longing for Steven Stamkos? Even when they got their local guy in John Tavares, the Islanders star was past his peak and has proved a millstone under the Toronto salary cap. This time they get a star in his peak years.

5) Matthews’ league-leading benchmark of $13.25 M. over just four years allows the NHL salary grid to fall in place behind him as the salary cap takes a bump in 2024-25. His deal will be the comparison for the next superstar contract that enters the unlimited FA portal in the future— although his max salary may chafe some stars who match Matthews’ production but have taken their teams deep into playoffs or winning a Cup. Don’t they deserve more? The expected rise in the league cap over the four years of the Matthews deal may help assuage that.

6) Finally— and most amusing— has been the response from hockey sweats to Matthews getting $13.25 M. For four years? To this crew who talk lovingly about The Game, this seems an awful lot to pay a guy for playing a boy’s game. That much? This just in, Matthews is criminally underpaid as one of the Top 10 players in a modern sports league. 

The dizzying $13.25 as NHL No. 1 would make him the 113th highest-paid player in the NBA, the 103rd highest-paid player in the MLB and the 88th highest-paid player in the NFL. As one perspective, Toronto-born Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of OKC Thunder— starring for Canada’s national team— pays about $13.25M per year in income tax.

Sure, there are differences among the revenues of the Big Four pro Leagues But, as we’ve written extensively, the @NHLPA sold out its stars in the 2004-05 CBA negotiations to protect average players and grinders. (Actually, it was a small group of stars pushed by their agents to stab Bob Goodenow’s strategy in the back.) They like to mock the product in CBA talks. 

Limiting the maximum contracts to 20 percent of the cap allows the league to have higher minimum and median salaries than NFL and MLB. (Hands up those people who buy tickets or digital packages to see the third line and fifth defenceman?) And pay lip service that it’s still Don Cherry’s Original Six league. With its cozy business plan there’s been little incentive to push the NHL’s business model beyond more expansion.

Also of note, if NHL doesn’t make its revenue target under this #CBA Matthews and the other players will have money clawed back in escrow. Great deal, huh? None of the other leagues has escrow, a device thought up by an NYC law firm and foisted on gullible NHL stars in secret meetings to break the 2004-05 lockout. Everything since then has been pantomime labour negotiations.

So good luck, Leafs fans. Enjoy Matthews and the star-spangled Toronto lineup. Things could change with the same guys making more money. But don’t hold your breath. 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin— Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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Bruce Dowbiggin

The Most Dangerous Man In Canada: Emmanuel Goldstein Reborn

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Emmanuel Goldstein was once an important member of the Party but became a traitor. Although he was sentenced to death, he escaped and formed the Brotherhood, an organized body of rebels committed to the destruction of the Party and the party’s way of life.— George Orwell, 1984

For Canadians who think that rising commodity prices, carbon tax increases and corruption of the federal government are their biggest concerns, we have news for them. If you listen to the bien pensants of Canadian media, the greatest threat to the nation is Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.

Just sample the ad hominems aimed at the man who has a 20-point lead in polls for next prime minister. “Pierre Poilievre is pretending he doesn’t know how his job works because it makes it easier” (Globe & Mail). ”Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?” (Macleans) “Canadians deserve better than this nonsense… There’s a difference between passion and churlishness” (Hill Times). And this barb from Liberal member/ House Speaker Greg Fergus’ event :“Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives propose reckless policies that would risk our health, safety and pocketbooks.”

Even the compliments are back-handed. “Canadians don’t seem to hate Poilievre like they used to: Widely despised upon winning the leadership, Poilievre is now winning ‘preferred prime minister’ polls” (National Post). No wonder floundering Liberal leader Justin Trudeau just keeps the hits coming at Poilievere. “Are we a country that looks out for each other … or do you go down a path of amplifying anger, division and fear?” Scary, kids.

Look, partisanship comes with the territory in politics. Nastiness, too. Even in Canadian political coverage. Fine. But this welter of Poilievre loathing comes in the wake of a decade of collective Trudeau amnesia from the self-appointed keepers of the flame in the fourth estate.

Listening to a recent podcast featuring three bonafide Canadian establishment media grandees gave us a hint into what has been remembered and what has been forgotten. It doesn’t matter which three (I’ve admired all three at one time or other.) . They’re now largely interchangeable in their complacent attitude of Keep Calm & Vote Justin. .

The first— and perhaps most significant— thing you get from listening is the blithe acceptance of politics-as-usual in the time of Trudeau the Younger. The collapse of the old order of doing business in Canada since PMJT was elected in 2015 is never discussed in Ottawa’s polite company. Canadians’ distrust in their authorities the past decade is all so much conspiracy talk.

Specifically, there is a black screen where the Truckers Convoy should be. Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley’s found that “there was no national emergency justifying the invocation of the Emergencies Act and the decision to do so was therefore unreasonable and ultra vires”. ( Ultra vires = actions beyond the scope of the law.) In a rules-based society this condemnation of the extraordinary suspension of civil order in February of 2022 would have forced a change in government— if not a self-examination of society.

But, white-washed by the purchased media, Trudeau’s abrogation of the rules of civil society was made to disappear after Justin waved his regal hand. Which made what happened during Covid— the closure of society and the criminalization of dissent— inevitable. You’d think forcing citizens to take an untested vaccine at the risk of losing their job, their freedom, their health (now known to have been dangerous to many) would be preeminent in the discussions.

Nah, it’s all about Pierre the Petulant. The panelists discussed Poilievre as a divisive force, a threat to the Ottawa orthodoxy. None mentioned that the PM, who condemned his own voters as genocidal at the U.N. on the strength of rumours alleging murdered native babies, might have to reckon with his patented falsehoods. No, Trudeau is treated as if he’s Mitchell Sharp.

Blithely dashing off such bias-as-fact CBC’s news writers arm their listeners with information that doesn’t compute in a world that doesn’t work. (CTV News, once a sober option to CBC, is now running a close second in hysteria. CTV hosts regurgitate Hamas death tolls that even the New York Times acknowledges are highly inflated. )

The tell in media complicity is the repeated use of “climate change” as undeniable fact or the “religious right” as a substitute for extremist movements. Echoing politicians who wouldn’t know El Niño from the El Mocambo, highly respected commentators enforce the late-‘90s ban on any scientific skepticism of King Charles or Al Gore as weather wack-a-doodles. Condemning the faithful as conspiratorial (unless it’s Islam) targets a large chunk of Poilievre’s base.

This casual bias is also easily found in your garden-variety CBC Radio newscast. The feckless announcer refers to Ireland, Spain and Norway recognizing “The State of Palestine”. There is not today nor has there ever been a state of Palestine. Palestine was a British imperial construct until Yasser Arafat conjured up this faux-state. Until the 1960s, the people of this region held Jordanian passports. But out goes The State of Palestine to the ears of a gullible nation.

This reinforcement loop is epitomized by the craven re-naming of Toronto squares and roads associated with Henry Dundas and universities named for Egerton Ryerson. A noisy clique pounded home their blatant falsehoods about Dundas and Ryerson through the media portal. Now panelists who should know better pass on the lies as if reading from a restaurant menu.

There are also prerequisite references in newscasts to hot weather elsewhere in the world being attributed to Climate Change by “experts”. Is that Al Gore Climate Change? Michael Mann Climate Change? Greta Thunberg Climate Change? The one where celebrities make predictions that don’t come true but CBC neglects to fact check?

And don’t get us started on #LGBTQ issues which are spoken of on CBC with reverence while Christian churches burning is just the price of doing business with Poilievere. Needless to say that all this agitprop has hardened into casual panel talk by people who used to know better.

How did Poilievere get so hated in the first place? The general public has only recognized him the last year, so any previous impressions were shaped by the PMO and the water carriers they own in the media. When reality met Chrystia Freeland’s mythology, the public was baffled at the gap between the pictures painted for them and reality.

But, being Canadians, most just shook their heads and muddled on. The Left has learned to adjust to that old line, “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend”.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Now for pre-order, new from the team of Evan & Bruce Dowbiggin— Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL & Changed Hockey. From Espo to Boston in 1967 to Gretz in L.A. in 1988 to Patrick Roy leaving Montreal in 1995, the stories behind the story. Launching in paperback and Kindle on #Amazon this week. Destined to be a hockey best seller. https://www.amazon.ca/Deal-Trades-Stunned-Changed-Hockey-ebook/dp/B0D236NB35/

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