A lot of legal mumbo-jumbo
Competition Bureau agrees NHL would not allow a veto to relocate team to Hamilton
April 01, 2008
The Hamilton Spectator
The ruling certainly doesn't help Hamilton's chances of getting an NHL hockey team, but it doesn't kill it.
The Competition Bureau ruled yesterday that the league did not contravene Canada's Competition Act in its processing of Jim Balsillie's bid to buy the Nashville Predators last spring. The Bureau also examined Balsillie's earlier attempt to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In both cases, Balsillie would likely have eventually moved the team to Copps Coliseum.
The ruling removes, for now, one of the potential legal hammers that could have been used to break down the National Hockey League's resistance, should Balsillie -- or anyone else -- buy a team and formally try to move it to Hamilton.
"We are confident that the NHL's policies are not anticompetitive," said Richard Taylor, deputy commissioner of competition, on the Bureau's website. "We conducted an extensive investigation which established that the NHL's policies were directed at furthering legitimate interests of the NHL, and not to prevent competition. This concludes our investigation of the matter."
The Canadian Bureau decided to look into the matter when several Canadian media outlets, including The Spectator, questioned whether the league actions might be blocking a second team from coming to southern Ontario.
But the Bureau agreed that the NHL would not permit any single team -- read, Toronto Maple Leafs or Buffalo Sabres -- to exercise a veto to prevent a franchise from entering into southern Ontario.
According to Section 36 of the NHL bylaws, only a majority of teams would have to vote in favour of relocation.
Legal and political pressures were never going to be the key to getting a team here anyway, although their existence would have certainly helped in a peripheral way. And it should be remembered that the Competition Bureau instigated the investigation of the NHL on its own, not at the urging of Balsillie, although he didn't oppose it.
But it was already clear, from their conciliatory tone of late, that the Balsillie camp will take a softer approach on its next attempt to purchase.
They followed all the protocol on the Pittsburgh deal and felt that the league absolutely skewered them as the deal was closing. So they became much more visible, vocal and aggressive in the Nashville dealings.
In so doing, Balsillie forced the issue of Canadian teams and the viability of Hamilton as a franchise site into the national, and NHL, consciousness. But he also rubbed many NHL governors the wrong way.
Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger doesn't think the Competition Bureau's ruling changes much in the city's pursuit of an NHL team.
"It's nice to know the law of the land doesn't think the NHL would do anything against the Competition Act," Eisenberger said yesterday.
"From where I sit, and from what a lot of people think, this market could easily handle another team. It could handle all three teams and create a big rivalry."
Balsillie's agreement with the city for long-term rights to Copps Coliseum formally expired when his company did not own a team by Dec. 31.
The NHL was happy with the ruling, of course.
"We were never concerned about an adverse finding, despite the fact that we were obviously the target of a misguided smear campaign intended to arouse public sentiment, especially in Canada," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press.
Former Nashville Predator owner Craig Leipold pulled out of negotiations with Balsillie last summer after agreeing in May to sell the Predators for $228-million US.
After protracted negotiations, the team was sold for $193-million US to Predators Holdings LLC, which includes mostly local business people. But the largest investment has been made by William (Boots) Del Biaggio, a Californian, who originally had been hired by the arena in Kansas City to bring a team there.
With no other bidders, Del Biaggio's presence, and Leipold's subsequent purchase of the Minnesota Wild, the sale price appeared to be well over market value and raised many, many eyebrows.
And some are still raised. As they should be.
Oh, oh, is that a smear? Or merely misguided?
And the response from the Balsillie camp?
"The Competition Bureau is there to ensure access to markets and effective competition practices in Canada for the benefit of all Canadians," said Balsillie's lawyer, Richard Rodier, in a prepared statement.
"No doubt they conducted the inquiry to the best of their abilities to reach their conclusion, and did what they deemed best to protect the interests of Canadian consumers of professional hockey."
Rodier would not comment further on the issue. Did we mention that they're taking a more conciliatory approach?
How the Competition Bureau came to this conclusion, only they know for certain, but we'll certainly be reminding them of their finding -- and so should the local MPs -- the next time a team gets close to moving to Hamilton. Whenever that is.
Because now we all know, for sure, that the NHL would never do anything anticompetitive.