2009: The Year of the Balsillie Bid

As we ponder the great Canadian events of 2009, some sports fans find themselves feeling a bit sorry for Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

As we ponder the great Canadian events of 2009, some sports fans find themselves feeling a bit sorry for Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

Not because third-quarter profits for the BlackBerry billionaire's company only hit about $630 million US for the period ending Nov. 28.

No, these fans have some sympathy for Balsillie because he will not head into 2010 as the proud, new owner of the Hamilton Coyotes. 

Hang on a minute. Is it even possible for everyday, average people to feel bad for a billionaire  who didn’t get his way with his hobby-like ambitions? And if so, don't those feelings go against human nature?

These issues are why Balsillie is at the centre of the most interesting sports story of the year in Canada.

Dreaming a dream

Like Susan Boyle of YouTube fame, Jim Balsillie "dreamed a dream" in 2009. He dreamed of buying the Phoenix Coyotes and moving the franchise from the Arizona desert to Hamilton, in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe.

But despite $242 million of his best efforts, Balsillie lost this hockey scrap to Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League.

Since a court ruling against him was handed down in the fall, Balsillie has continued to make money with his BlackBerry business while Canadian hockey fans continue to dream of adding another NHL team to the country.

And maybe that's why it's OK to be a little sympathetic toward Balsillie. If you take away his billions of dollars, he's just like the rest of the Canadian hockey community: He's a diehard fan who dreams of bringing a seventh NHL franchise to Canada.

Hope for the best

Balsillie's been trying to purchase and relocate an NHL club since 2006, when he made an offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a country that continues to mourn the loss of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques, that makes him a champion of the people's cause.

Winnipeg sports psychologist Cal Botterill says Balsillie's dogged pursuit of the Coyotes in 2009 gave hockey fans even more hockey hope than ever before.

"I think it has sparked hope across Canada, and the fact that American franchises are struggling is fuelling our interest in the possibilities again," Botterill said. 

"To have a single white knight come along trying to override some of that, and just get things happening that he thought should happen for the area and the league, was very attractive to the public."

Keep it simple

Balsillie also managed to endear himself to his fellow citizens thanks to the simplicity of his bid. No group of unknown investors with a catchy name that makes no sense. No complicated legal hurdles to overcome. No government funding for this and that. 

It was just Jim Balsillie writing a cheque for $242.5 million for the right to move the Phoenix Coyotes into the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.

"I don't think people cared at all that he was a billionaire," Botterill said. "I think they were kind of excited that someone with that kind of money was even willing to look at something like this that might motivate or intrigue them. So yeah, I think he won over a lot of public support through the process."

Good vs. evil?

The Balsillie-Phoenix-NHL saga was also easy to follow thanks to the obvious "good guy vs. bad guy" plotline.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has almost always been considered the enemy around these parts. In case you've forgotten, he was at the helm of the NHL when Winnipeg and Quebec moved to the United States in the 1990's. That fact alone made it easy to choose sides.

"People love the product of the NHL, but they're not in love with the NHL's administration or politics," Botterill said.  

So the moment Balsillie said he was planning to buy the Coyotes so he could move the team to Southern Ontario, he was granted hero status immediately by millions of Canadians.

The final word

Whether you were with him or against him, it was hard to avoid talking about Jim Balsillie in 2009. Among hockey fans, coffee-shop conversations, office opinions and alley-way arguments about Balsillie's bid abounded, filled with passion from even casual followers of the sport.

Probably no one was more passionate about relocating the Coyotes to Hamilton than Balsillie himself.

Shortly after a judge in Phoenix ruled in favour of the NHL, Balsillie released the following statement on his Make it Seven website:

From the beginning, my attempt to relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton has been about Canadian hockey fans and Canadian hockey. It was a chance to realize a dream. All I wanted was a fair chance to bring a seventh NHL team to Canada, to serve the best unserved hockey fans in the world. I believe I got that chance. I respect the court's decision, and I will not be putting forward an appeal.

Nobody can deny that we are now a big step closer to having a seventh NHL team in Canada. It doesn't matter who owns that team. When that day comes, I will be the first in line to buy a ticket to the home opener.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my family for all their love and support. I also want to thank the more than 200,000 fans who supported the bid online and the countless others who contacted me personally to show their support. This bid always was about the game we all love.

Thank you,

Jim Balsillie

No. Thank you, Jim. Thanks for your hockey dream and for making 2009 a year Canadian sports fans will never forget.