Saturday, July 5, 2008

Ferris Bettman's Day Off?

A belated Happy Independence Day to our American readers... As I was thinking of the American holiday, I wondered, does NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman take the day off? If he did, perhaps he listened to some REM while lounging at home. One song in particular may have struck a chord with the commish, "It's a bad day, please don't take my picture".

Gary Bettman's leadership has often been questioned by fans and media. As the salary cap rises from it's original $43 million just a few seasons ago, to its current $56.7 million, some owners should start wondering what direction the NHL is headed. There are a number of mini disasters waiting to happen if the Commissioner is not careful.

I'm not prepared to go into a recap of Bettman's reign as NHL boss, that's a topic for a book not a blog. I do want to mention that Mr. Bettman has done many good things for hockey. There would be no Buffalo Sabres and more importantly to local readers, no Ottawa Senators if not for Gary Bettman protecting these franchises from bankruptcy and finding strong local owners. At one point not so many years ago, the Senators players were asked mid season if they could play one particular week and be paid at a later date. It didn't come to that; but the players would have kept playing I should mention. With the good however, sometimes comes the bad...

Let's start with the latest news to come across the wires yesterday, Jaromir Jagr's NHL career is done. Being 35 or older in today's NHL is a dangerous thing. Any contracts signed at or after that age will count against a team's salary cap even if the player retires. Jagr was searching for a three year deal that would eventually lead him back to the Czech Republic to open a new arena playing for his father. He couldn't find that deal in today's NHL. The new Russian League has scored a small victory signing a legend like Jagr. The NHL will be in real trouble when the Russian League signs a young star like Malkin in five years. Could Avangard Omsk offer a $35 million deal to John Tavares next year? Tavares could skip the NHL Rookie salary cap by playing for big money along side Jagr. Wade Dubielewicz, the former Islanders back up goalie, realized Dipietro has 14 years left on his contract so he's off to Russia too. Others will have to follow.

Bettman's world also has at least five potential fires to put out among the owners. Let's start in Tampa Bay. This situation doesn't fall into the "problem" category yet, but it could become a headache. The Lightning were certainly big spenders in Free Agency, but who's money was it? The new eight person group is being financed in part by the seller, Palace Sports and Entertainment. The sale involves the Lightning, the Arena and 5.5 acres of land in downtown Tampa that is to be developed together. If the real estate values continue to fall, the buyer and seller could both lose money here. Mr. Bettman and the NHLPA may also want to look into the handling of the Dan Boyle trade. After signing a six year deal in February with the new group, he suddenly didn't fit their plans. Boyle made a commitment to Tampa, he's rewarded with the threat of being sent to the minors if he doesn't waive his no trade clause. It's not a rule violation but it's a shame...

Speaking of rule violations, the league now has owners facing suspension by the league for various infractions. What impact is there on a team when the owner can't be involved with the day to day operations of the club? Probably not much. Regardless, the Anaheim Ducks owner has pled guilty to SEC charges and is now banned from the NHL. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has been investigated as well. He has stated he will defend himself against any charges. On the silly side, Bettman - whose office is in New York, has threatened Rangers ownership with banishment if they continue to fight with the league in court over control of the team's web site and on-line activities. I'll just shake my head on that one.

Then there is the Nashville mess. Trust me, it's a genuine mess. Bettman seems intent on keeping a team in Nashville despite the fact that hockey is not working in that market. He personally blocked the sale and a move to Hamilton, Ontario. The revenues generated in Canada are through the roof since the lock out. Teams in the "black" pay luxury tax to keep teams in the "red" afloat. How long will the six Canadian teams and their fans pay for Mr. Bettman's Southern experiment? No team can receive payments for more than three years. This is Nashville's third year and as yet, they have little or no corporate support. To block the move to Hamilton, Bettman hand picked "Boots" Del Biaggio to team with a local group of investors to "save" the Preds. The fact "Boots" and "Lucky" Luc Robitaille are the rights holders to NHL hockey in Kansas City raised a few eyebrows. At least it should have. Nashville seller, Craig Leopold, then purchased the Minnesota Wild after dumping the Preds. Before he left though, he lent money to Del Biaggio to finance buying his old club. Confused? Me too.

Mr. "Boots" is now accused in three separate lawsuits of providing forged documents to financial institutions to land multi-million dollar loans that he has not repaid. He used other peoples accounts to secure $33 million in loans, partly to buy the Predators. Now that Del Biaggio has filed for bankruptcy, Wild owner Leopold now joins the long line of creditors that will never see a dime of their money. In a separate suit, Del Biaggio and his K.C. partner Robitaille, are in default on a $2 million dollar loan. Last year, both resigned from the Board of Directors of petroleum company ONCO, after running afoul of regulators in Ontario. The company went public in November at $5 a share and closed in May at 15.5 cents a share. Add these shareholders to Del Biaggio's victims. On Fan 590's Prime Time Sports a few weeks ago, Senators owner Melnyk described the NHL's investigations of prospective owners as "intrusive, very intrusive". How did Gary Bettman, the lawyer, miss the financial house of cards that Del Biaggio was showing him?

If Commissioner Gary Bettman didn't take the day off, and does have some kind of master plan, perhaps he should let the rest of us in on it...

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