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Bruce Dowbiggin

Coyotes Ugly: The Sad Obsession Of Gary Bettman

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8 minute read

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

Jerry Came to See The Babies. And They Walked Out On Him

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Cometh the hour, cometh the comedian. Or, you can learn a lot about a demographic by what makes them laugh.

The legacy/ lunacy media schvitzed itself over a few furious sociology majors and look-at-me drama queens walking out on Jerry Seinfeld’s commencement address at Duke University last weekend. But the significance of his admission that he was 70 was probably far more newsworthy to those now in retirement, binge-watching his eponymous TV series on one of those down-the-dial channels.

If we had a dollar for every Boomer who said, “Seinfeld is 70?” while watching the address we’d be Warren-Buffett-rich this morning. He doesn’t look like any 70 year olds we know. Fifty? Maybe. But listening to his familiar delivery, the mocking on his honorary degree costume, it was easy to believe that we, too, are much younger than our blood-thinner prescriptions say.

It also pointed out the evolution of Boomers’ comedic tastes. When they came of age in the late 1960s/ early 1970s Woody Allen best profiled as his generation’s comedic muse. With a dozen classic movies ranging from What’s New Pussycat (1965) through Play It Again Sam (1972) to Annie Hall (1977) Allen’s self-deprecating nebbish captured the romantic/ridiculous self-image of Boomers with “Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle”.

The neurotic, insecure Allen then decided to become Ingmar Bergman, and Boomers— now assembling jobs, children and first spouses— moved on. But for that 12-year span the bedraggled standup comedian was the go-to with lines like “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” and  “The only love that lasts is unrequited love.”

Woody’s pointed contemporary political references in those years were few (conflating “D’you” for “Jew” with Tony Roberts in Manhattan) and self-deflating (see Annie Hall). His most prominent political jabs were framed in absurdist material like Love And Death and Bananas. Culturally he was merciless but affectionate about his Brooklyn upbringing. In short his were perfect date movies for Boomers seeking love to advertise their pretensions.

Flash forward from Woody to Seinfeld (created with Larry David) which was anti-romantic in the extreme. The characters were sociopaths. The situations often cringeworthy. The 24-minute formula harkened back to Lucy and the Honeymooners. And while schlock like Friends trod the same ground it was Seinfeld that somehow captured the Boomer  zeitgeist. 

Why? Boomers going through middle age were too disillusioned with how life was turning out to romanticize anymore. The self-obsessed characters were people they knew from work, school and dealing with government. Smirking Bill Clinton was the face of an era. “When we did my show in the 90s, it was so easy to make fun of things. It was so easy,” Seinfeld told Amy Schumer.

Significantly, Seinfeld the Show was cultural. Or quasi-cultural. It was never about politics per se. It was about the people who thwart you in life. Whose vanity ruins your plans from school days. Who go 50 mph in the left lane. “When is Jerry going to see the baby?” It rarely challenged its fans on an emotional level. It was mostly about navigating madness.

And often about the most mundane elements of life. The address on the weekend contained The Seinfeld Doctrine of Lowered Expectations. “It’s easy to fall in love with people. I suggest falling in love with anything and everything, every chance you get. Fall in love with your coffee, your sneakers, your blue zone parking space. I’ve had a lot of fun in life falling in love with stupid, meaningless physical objects. 

“The object I love the most is the clear-barrel Bic pen — $1.29 for a box of 10. I can fall in love with a car turn signal switch that has a nice feel to it, a pizza crust that collapses with just the right amount of pressure. I have truly spent my life focusing on the smallest things imaginable, completely oblivious to all the big issues of living.”

Reaching across the generations Seinfeld delivered Dad jokes and bromides to kids who education probably cost $100 K a year. “I think it is also wonderful that you care so much about not hurting other people’s feelings in the million and one ways we all do that,” he said. Then he explained why that might be a fruitless pursuit. Not in Curb Your Enthusiasm darkness. But sobering.

That’s why it was in character for him to let the furious demonstrators depart at Duke without comment. So was appearing at Duke, the Ivy League of Tobacco Road, founded by the people who made jillions selling nicotine. And why he let them garb him like Thomas Cromwell in the absurd 16th century cape and hat so he could score few laughs.

Because laughter is his means of dealing with jerks like the outbound Hamas crowd. “What I need to tell you as a comedian: Do not lose your sense of humour. You can have no idea at this point in your life how much you are going to need it to get through. Not enough of life makes sense for you to be able to survive it without humour.”

Yes, He has been vocal lately about the effect of political correctness ruining TV comedy. Drawing flak from former friends and fans who are in the Biden re-education camps at the moment. But his annoyance at ruining an art form far outweighed any complaints about Covid and Ukraine.

As opposed to the nihilism of his former partner David, his insouciance and comic patter represent an antidote for where most of his original fans are at the moment. Woody Allen, their former idol, is now seen as a pedo and a failed nouveau vage auteur. Disillusioned with virus lies, electoral shenanigans and soaring prices, Boomers on a pension are unanchored, floating through what used to be North American society (when only women had babies).

In fact, Boomer spectators watching Seinfeld’s 17-minute speech maybe summed it up for themselves by recalling the Seinfeld mantra, “It was a show about nothing.” And they’d be right. Jerry is the man for those times.

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

Why Do The Same Few Always Get The Best Sports Scoops?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs made the “what colour is that green light?” decision to fire their head coach Sheldon Keefe last week. The removal of Keefe after five years followed a dispiriting first-round playoff series loss to a very ordinary Boston Bruins team. Coaching may or may not have been the root cause of that loss. (Keefe himself admitted “teams are waiting for the Leafs to beat themselves”.)

The real reason for the firing is 1967, and we don’t think we need add more than that.

In essence, the management of MLSE— the owner of the Maple Leafs and a lot of other sports stuff in Toronto— needed to throw a body to the baying hounds of disappointment. Also known as Leafs Nation. Newly minted CEO Keith Pelley, fresh from the PGA Tour/ LIV psychodrama, was certainly not going to pay the price.

Nor was GM Brad Treliving who has only been on the job for two seasons. The key decisions on Toronto’s lopsided salary cap were decided long before Treliving occupied his desk. That left two people in vulnerable positions. 1) Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who has been drawing an MLSE cheque for a decade. 2) Keefe.

When was the last time you saw a coach fire a team president? Precisely. Keefe joins the list of (briefly) unemployed coaches who circulate in the NHL like McKinsey consultants. Shanahan gets a lukewarm mulligan from Pelley. But after the failure of the Kyle Dubas experiment— “who needs experience?”— and now just a single playoff series win in a decade Shanny’s best-before date has arrived.

Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan attends a news conference in Toronto on April 14, 2014. Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said Peter Horachek will remain the team’s interim head coach until the end of the season. Shanahan met the media Friday for the first time since coach Randy Carlyle was fired on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Depending on who he and Treliving enlist to coach— remember, Mike Babcock was too tough and Keefe was probably too player friendly— it had better produce instant results. Because Shanny, the pride of Mimico, is out of chances. The coach choice will also be affected by whichever player or players that management decides are superfluous to ending the Leafs’ ridiculous run of misery.

The Leafs brass’ press conference last Thursday did little to shed light on what happens after Keefe’s expulsion. Just a lot of MBA determinism on a bed of baffle gab. A crabby Steve Simmons question/rant briefly threatened the harmony of the moment, but order was restored. And the media bitching switched from the press box to social media and podcasts.

Speaking of the fourth estate, the other unmentioned aspect of this story— indeed every story in the NHL these days— is just how it was revealed to the public. When people sipped their morning Tim’s or Starbucks the (almost) coincident bulletins came down the social media pike about Keefe’s dismissal.

Predictably, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet and Daren Dreger of TSN announced the breaking news within heart beats of each other. While there had been speculation on Keefe’s fate for days, the announcement coming from the networks duo confirmed the story in the minds of the industry. That allowed everyone else drawing a cheque as a hockey journalist to pile in and swarm the dead body.

In today’s sports journalism, where social media has replaced newspapers, scoops are governed by a protocol. There are the heralds— in the NHL it’s currently Johnston and Dreger— and then there are the disseminators. The days of a rabble of reporters all scrambling to get a story bigger than who-will-play-in-tonight’s-game are gone. Today, it’s a very narrow funnel for scoops.

It’s the same in the NFL where Ian Rappaport (NFL Network) and Adam Schefter (ESPN) monopolize the tasty scoops on behalf of their employers, who also happen to be NFL rights holders. In the NBA, Brian Windhorst (ESPN) has the inside rail when it comes to the LeBron James/ Steph Curry scoops. In MLB… it’s probably Ken Rosenthal  (The Athletic) but no one cares about baseball anymore, do they?

The leagues like it this way, doling out stories to guys they can trust. None of this is criticism of Johnston or Dreger, who have deftly maneuvered themselves into the coveted “from their lips to your ears” spots. From our own experience we can remember the exhilaration of having the best source or sources on the really big stories. Like Johnston/ Dreger, we worked hard for a long time to develop those sources and only very reluctantly let anyone else horn in on our stories.

It was also our observation that this order of things journalistic suited a lot of reporters who either couldn’t get good sources or didn’t want the stress of being first on stuff. It was enough that, like the Keefe story, they’d get the goods eventually and most fans would not care who was first. So long as you had a take. So be it.

Some resentful types took potshots at our work if it upset their pals in the dressing room or the management suite. On the Stephen Ames/ Tiger Woods story in 2001, we had the late Pat Marsden tell us on air that we’d done a great job on Ames’ criticisms of Tiger. Only to hear him lambaste us— again on FAN 590— only minutes later as we listened driving home from the studio. But we digress.

Many reporters are complacent in playing the game, so long as their bosses didn’t enquire why they are getting scooped all the time by the same few rivals. With the death of daily newspapers that doesn’t happen much any longer. (Many editors today may only see stories when publication brings a libel notice.) For them a salty take is good enough.

The scoop business is also affected by the multiple roles now demanded of sports media types. In addition to their “day job” on a beat they also have to supply digital content and talk-back hits to the Mother Ship. Most also are feeding a weekly podcast, dictating time on air rather than time working the phone. There are only so many hours in a day to chase a story.

Better to play the Breaking News waiting game.

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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