Monday, November 10, 2008

Easy Dirty Ugly Dirty Money

I am always always happy when people start talking about a theoretical second Toronto team. As I see it, it makes sense, it makes a lot of sense and the only people in the NHL who disagree with that are the guys in charge of doling out the franchises. The NHL has its own plans for relocation but they don't involve Canada. It's an open secret that the Hockey Establishment wants a team in Kansas City, for all their secret and probably nefarious reasons. If anything has given me joy over the last few months (and it hasn't been the Leafs) it's been watching the NHL stumble around, caught with its pants down over its involvement with William "Boots" del Baggio and the sale of the Nashville Predators.

Have you been following this? I hope so because it is a good story. I hope so because this gets dirty. I hope so because this is the kind of stuff people lose important high up hockey jobs over. Maybe this story is familiar to you. You remember Jim Balsillie and his attempted takeover of said Predators and you remember Gary Bettman's ham fisted refusal of all that good Canadian money. He didn't want Balsillie's money because Ballsy was going to uproot the team and take it to Hamilton, Ontario and Hamilton, Ontario is not a city where any self respecting hockey franchise would find itself out past dark.

So the NHL turns down Balsillie and his guaranteed millions and instead turn to Boots del Baggio because Boots is buddy buddy with the hockeystocracy and Boots understands that the correct place to put an uprooted hockey franchise is not in Canada, where they probably already have enough hockey anyway, but in Kansas City where it is well known that local hockey fans have been in steep withdrawal-like symptoms since 1976, the year the Kansas City Scouts up rooted and headed for the snowier slopes of Colorado. (The Kansas City Scouts would be a pretty good name for a team if it was supposed to be parsed "the Kansas City Scouts," you know?). A hockey team in the KC is in line with NHL thinking and though Boots can't scrounge up quite as much buillion as certain Canadian billionaires, he gets the coveted Nashville stake.

This seems so obvious in retrospect, I'm sure the NHL is now realizing, but selling shares of their business to a man nicknamed "Boots" was a Bad idea (what are boots made for?). There is a new sports arena in Kansas City, built specially to attract any misplaced major league sports teams that might wander by and you maybe already know who owns that new arena. It's owned by Phil Anchutz, who also owns the LA Kings and probably a bazillion other things. So Anschutz owns an empty stadium in Kansas City. This story is great and it keeps getting better. This is the kind of Woodward and Bernstein stuff makes me want to enroll into j-school right now.

You will or will not be surprised to learn that a man named "Boots" did not actually have enough money to buy his own hockey franchise. And by "enough", I should say "any". But gosh darn it this is America pre-credit crisis and there is always someone willing to give an enterprising entrepreneur with a questionable nickname a line of credit. In this case it was our friend Anschutz who stepped up to the plate, along with buddy Craig Leipold, owner of the Minnesota Wild, both of whom have probably played more than a few rounds of golf with Gary Bettman, if you catch my drift. Now we have two NHL owners lending money to a third soon-to-be-owner. And that third owner is one or two bad season in Nashville away from flipping the team into another city, into a building owned by his creditors.

Business as usual until Boots del Baggio's con man act runs dry and he files for bankruptcy and we find out's he's in the hole for almost $60 million dollars. This wouldn't be so bad if Bettman's NHL didn't already have a track record of selling franchises to insolvent fraudsters and if the other guy offering to buy the Predators hadn't been so obviously a better choice.

This is all of course, I hasten to mention, all pure SPECULATION and should be treated as such as it's all before the courts as we speak. Boots is up on fraud charges plus a messy bankruptcy. If you want to read more, keep your eye on your local drugstore's literature section under legal thrillers, if you know what I mean.

It's also interesting to note that because Boots' creditors include two NHL owners in Anschutz and Leipold, those two may now theoretically own part of the Nashville Predators, which would obviously go against NHL bylaws. One more thing to think about.

I hope this gets ugly. This might have heavy fallout on Gary Bettman. This might cost Bettman his job. This might be the best worst mistake the NHL ever made.

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