Saturday, December 23, 2006

Learned helplessness: A concept Hamilton NHL fans know all too well

The news
First, in case you have not heard, here is the breaking news that inspired this entry: Jim Balsillie discussed the possibility of bringing an NHL franchise to Hamilton with Gary Bettman last March (Paul Waldie, Globe and Mail, December 22nd, 2006).

Upon finding out what most of us had suspected, that Jim Balsillie was the person behind the mystery group trying to bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton, I became sad, very sad. Not because of Balsillie’s heroic act, but once again Hamilton was an arms length from landing an NHL team. It made me wonder if there is a circumstance, if any, that would land Hamilton an NHL team (apart from relocating our city to somewhere in the States, like Utah). When Copps Coliseum was the best arena in North America, there was too much politicking against such a move. Now that Copps is aged and looking tired (though it wouldn’t take much to raise this phoenix), Waldie reported that Bettman would consider a Hamilton team if Balsillie built a new arena. My brain could not believe what my eyes were reading, but my brain needed to make sense of what was happening. An epiphany: Hamiltonians are the dogs of the NHL.

Hamiltonians are the dogs of the NHL
So you might be thinking ‘I’m a Hamiltonian, but learned helplessness is not a concept I know all to well’. With some explaining, I assure you that you do. What has happened over the last, say, 20 years, has been a natural experiment following the behaviourist tradition. In the 1960’s, Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand the causes of depression. There were two conditions. In the first condition, a dog was placed in a cage where a sound signaled the onset of an electrical shock. When the sound was made, the dog learned to avoid the shock by jumping over a small barrier to the other side. In the second condition, a dog was placed in the same cage, sound and shock were paired together, but this time there was nowhere for the dog to go to avoid the shock. Over and over again the sound was made, the shock was elicited, and the dog had to sit there and take it. Eventually, the dog just laid down and at least received the shock in a comfortable position. This sad response is learned helplessness.

Nothing Hamiltonians have done or tried to do over the past 20 years changed the outcome—there was always a reason the NHL would not go to Hamilton, even if these reasons were addressed. We built a state-of-the art arena, but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because of territorial rights to Toronto and Buffalo. We can get a wealthy owner (who could deal with territorial rights), but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because Copps Coliseum is old and a new arena needs to be built. We organized the best bid for an NHL franchise, but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because they wanted to negotiate how to pay the NHL. We can… well, you get the point (if not, see What we have learned from this NHL pursuit, my friends, is helplessness.

The consequence of helplessness is complacency, and I worry that too many Hamiltonians have become complacent when they do not have to be. The philosophy of an American-centric bureaucracy should not impede the interests of Canadians in general, nor Hamiltonians in particular. Hockey is Canada’s game, and all of us, from the Dofasco employee, to the Mayor, to business leaders, to all Canadians, should be lobbying the NHL to give us fair representation in a league that was ours.

Despite this rather depressing story, keep this in mind: we were dogs once before—Bulldogs in fact.

Jim Balsillie: Thank-you for your interest in bringing back Hamilton’s Tigers. You will be successful and revered if this ever works out.

Gary Bettman: You have an opportunity to make the NHL great, not good. Please learn from a successful businessperson like Jim Balsillie—a person who believes the NHL would work in Hamilton.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

It’s official: Bettman hates Canadians

Why else would he care so much about keeping the Penguins from relocating to Southern Ontario? With a large population and hockey-mad fans, there is lots of money to be made. Balsillie is a billionaire for a reason—why would he move a team to a region that would not make for a viable franchise? I highly doubt that a buyer who was interested in moving the team to either Kansas or Las Vegas would get the same treatment. What we are seeing here is textbook strong-arming1. If you want to own a team, you gotta play by our rules, even if these rules are designed with an unfair preference for Americans.

If Canadians want more teams representing their cities, and they have the investors to own them, why can’t they? People from Quebec City and Winnipeg should be furious with this recent development. Wouldn’t it have been nice for the NHL to make demands that the Nordiques or the Jets be sold to someone who agreed to keep the team in that city under any circumstances?

So many questions, so few honest answers.

Many people cite lucrative TV deals as a reason for keeping teams in well-known, large-market, American cities. But if people in these cities need classes to learn about what a period is (e.g. Phoenix), and they are not watching hockey either at the arenas or on TV, why would any large networks want to strike a deal? Stick to regions that want hockey. The market should drive these decisions, not clever marketing.

1. I am referring to the latest tactics used by Bettman to ensure the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh: he wanted Balsillie to agree to keep the team there under any circumstances! Now what businessperson in their right mind would dish out $175 million under those conditions? I think Bettman is trying to cover all ground with the upcoming decision on IOC's gaming license--completely unfair.

If only we could read Balsillie's mind

Balsillie sure knows how to keep people guessing. Remember how a little while ago Balsillie claimed that his interest in purchasing the Penguins were only rumours? There now seems to be some confusion (planned confusion?) with Lemieux's announcement that Balsillie has withdrawn his $175 million offer. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review (Dec. 16) reported that Balsillie denied this claim, that "I'm not giving up on anything" and "I wish it could move forward", said Balsillie.

The latest reports suggest Balisillie withdrew his offer because starting a week ago, Bettman made ridiculous demands that he agree to keep the team in Pittsburgh under any circumstances, meaning regardless of the Isle of Capri result (who promised to build a new arena if granted a gaming license). Well, if Balsillie planned on moving the team to K-W, then this is great news for Hamiltonians. If his plan was to move them to Hamilton--it's no suprise given our luck.

I have a feeling this Balsillie saga is far from over. Stay tuned!