By now you've likely heard the news already: Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes unexpectedly filed for Chapter 11 bankrupty yesterday, and was even more unexpectedly offered $212.5 million US by Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie on the condition that the franchise be moved to southern Ontario.
What we're witnessing is the opening salvo of a power struggle that will be fought in the media and decided in the courts. The real conflict isn't about the future of the Coyotes, who have been an unqualified failure in every respect, but about the future of the NHL and hockey in general. The combatants are the most powerful men in hockey, and each has a lot to lose.
Bettman was reportedly irate at the news of Balsillie's power play on the Phoenix franchise, and owners around the league were caught off-guard by media inquiries on the subject. Clearly, Balsillie feels that he can win this game without the support of the hockey "establishment". That might be a fatal mistake in an industry ruled by personal connections and backroom deals.
For his part, Balsillie has cast himself in the part of "populist hero" to Canadian fans, publicly setting himself against Bettman and his vision of a more American-ized league. This exposes a sharp divide in the hockey culture: those who believe in the viability of Sun Belt markets, and those who would rather see the league contract to its roots in the Northeast and Canada.
In the process of resolving the fate of the Coyotes franchise, we might see these tensions begin to pull at the fabric of the league. Bettman has close alliances throughout the league's power structure, and will play all of his cards if necessary to get rid of the relocation threat. Balsillie has clearly cultivated a partnership with Moyes, and is already courting other owners to back his acquisition.
More importantly, Balsillie is extending his campaign to the fans and media -- and if there's anyone who understands the power of new media, it's a Blackberry entrepreneur. His viral campaign uses phrases like: "We want those Canadian voices... to be heard throughout the North American NHL market". The euphemistic reference to a Canadian/American divide is obvious.
The coming weeks could be a time of momentous change for the NHL. If Bettman repels Balsillie, it's unlikely that another franchise owner would consider becoming the next Moyes. If Balsillie is able to force a sale and relocation through in spite of Bettman's opposition, it will likely signal a tidal change in the culture and operation of the league.
In the end, the hockey world isn't big enough for both of these men, or the conflicting ideas that they represent.