Craig Leipold is not the sort of man who shoots off his mouth. Even before he joined the cloistered ranks of the National Hockey League as owner of the Nashville Predators, the sandy-haired entrepreneur from Racine, Wisc., had carved a reputation for discretion—a virtue no doubt learned from his in-laws. Leipold’s wife happens to be Helen Johnson of S.C. Johnson & Company fame, and while her husband long ago proved his business bona ﬁdes, Leipold’s social station speaks for itself. You don’t gain entry into one of America’s most venerable families by waging unseemly personal battles.
But when the subject of Jim Balsillie comes up, as it did during a deposition hearing last month, Leipold’s customary reserve ﬂies out the window. Now the owner of the Minnesota Wild, Leipold was testifying as part of the high-proﬁle bankruptcy proceedings of the Phoenix Coyotes, recalling the six months of fractured negotiations in 2007 when he’d tried to sell the Predators to Balsillie. For two years, Leipold had kept his feelings about the quixotic Canadian billionaire largely to himself. Now, from his lawyer’s Main Street ofﬁces in Racine, he was about to pound a rhetorical stake through Balsillie’s reputation.
“He’s untrustworthy. He’s deceiving. He’s arrogant. He’s a person who doesn’t know how to be a partner in our business,” Leipold testiﬁed. “When there is someone that you have dealt with and that has lied to you continually, that has deceived you—knowing that he was going to deceive you at the end—that is a pretty good reason to dislike him. Yes, it is true. I do dislike the man.”
At some points his tirade turned ominous: “This is the way [Balsillie] operates. He operates by threats, by innuendos, by phone calls to people. Quiet phone calls, and you can connect the dots.” But mostly it revolved around what Leipold viewed as Balsillie’s rank capriciousness. “This is a person,” he said, “I could never support as an owner.”
How things have changed. This was the same Craig Leipold, recall, who’d gone to bat for the Research in Motion magnate back in 2007 in hopes of completing his deal, scrambling to assuage the suspicions of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and coaching the Canadian on how best to navigate the Byzantine initiation process of league ownership. Initially, Leipold had even contemplated retaining a minority stake in the Predators so he could work with Balsillie. That the mild-mannered Wisconsian has since sunk so far into vitriol speaks to his disappointment at a failed mega-deal. But it also illustrates something many Canadian hockey fans are loath to consider: that Balsillie has fumbled three attempts to acquire an NHL franchise, and fumbled them badly.
Such a view diverges, of course, from a popular narrative here in Canada, in which the NHL’s resolute opposition to locating a second team in southern Ontario has driven Balsillie to ever more desperate measures. The multi-billionaire and his agents have fed that story with messianic enthusiasm, granting friendly reporters access to the dressing room for his pickup games, and launching a website aimed at stoking our offended patriotism. “My motivations are simple,” he proclaimed in a recent afﬁdavit. “They are my love of the game of hockey, my repeatedly demonstrated commitment to Canada and southern Ontario, and my strong belief that the community of southern Ontario, the game of hockey and Canada will beneﬁt from a seventh NHL franchise.”
But in recent weeks, another narrative has arisen from the mountain of court documents ﬁled in Phoenix, pointing to something more visceral than mere jingoism, or passion for a game. What started ﬁve years ago as a sincere desire to join the club of NHL owners has mutated into full-blown obsession, prompting Balsillie to take actions no rational business person could imagine succeeding. To be sure, he’s been pushed. From the outset, the league and its combative commissioner, Bettman, have treated the Canadian tycoon with suspicion; they’ve never been completely forthright about their reasons for resisting an NHL team in Hamilton (the prospect of confrontation with the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs). But the best deal makers learn from their mistakes, and in this case, Balsillie hasn’t. Far from building support among potential allies, he has left behind a list of powerful enemies who want nothing more than to see him fail. Again.
There was a time, believe it or not, when Jim Balsillie wanted nothing more than to keep his NHL fantasies a secret. Back in 2003, years before he tried to use a bankruptcy spat to smuggle the Phoenix Coyotes into Hamilton, he was the silent partner (i.e. driving force) behind another, much smaller enterprise: HHC Acquisition Corp. The company was created for one reason—to bring a National Hockey League franchise to Steeltown—but Balsillie, the man holding the purse strings, was anxious to avoid the spotlight. So anxious, in fact, that he set up a second company (2039802 Ontario Inc.) to funnel his investments to HHC. As one of his lawyers later wrote, the goal “was to keep Jim one step removed” and “to protect his privacy.”
There was also a time, believe it or not, when Jim Balsillie exchanged civil pleasantries—and cellphone numbers—with Bettman, now his arch-nemesis. At their ﬁrst formal meeting, a New York sit-down on March 28, 2006, the BlackBerry boss shared his top-secret dreams for a hockey team in southern Ontario. Accompanied by his bulldog attorney, Richard Rodier, Balsillie told Bettman that HHC had already secured a lease agreement for Copps Coliseum, and that he was willing to reach into his own deep pockets to renovate the ill-fated arena. The commissioner, though, was not impressed. The region simply cannot support another franchise, he said, even if the rink does get a much-needed facelift.