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Ed Willes, CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, June 01, 2007


OTTAWA - You had to wade through the customary allotment of bafflegab and doublespeak, but when Gary Bettman invoked the name of Winnipeg during his state-of-the-union address earlier this week, it appears he did so for one of two reasons.

Actually, there might be a third: Bettman is evil incarnate and his delight in torturing the good people of Winnipeg never ends. But let's put that aside for the moment and focus on the two more realistic probabilities: 1) Bettman, who once regarded any move back to Winnipeg with the enthusiasm he regarded a move to Kabul, has softened his stance on the Manitoba capital and/or 2) His message wasn't directed at the media, but rather at Jim Balsillie concerning any plans to relocate the Nashville Predators to southern Ontario.

Yes, upon further consideration, it's the latter, but here's the more interesting aspect of this story. You wouldn't rule out the former either.

"Yes, we've had expressions of interest from a number of different cities, including Winnipeg," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an e-mail. "A return to Winnipeg is an interesting possibility but not one we've really pursued in earnest to this point."

But the mere fact that anyone from the NHL is now talking about this publicly is, to use Bettman's word, "intriguing," even if no one knows what he means by that.

The Winnipeg issue, which seemed deader than Luca Brasi a year ago, came to life this week when, among other things, Bettman made the hilarious assertion that moving back to Winnipeg would right a wrong committed by the NHL. We'll spare you the unfortunate details but, 10 years ago, the NHL couldn't wait to get out of Winnipeg and set up shop in Phoenix. To suggest the league feels any remorse over the move is, quite frankly, an insult to the intelligence of Winnipeggers.

Balsillie is a different matter. Bettman and the board of governors are, at once, enamoured of the BlackBerry billionaire and a little fearful of him. They love that he's stepped up with a $220-million US offer on the moribund Predators. They are, however, afraid that Balsillie represents a rogue factor - kind of a combination of Mark Cuban and Al Davis - and there will be a problem down the road with southern Ontario.

For reasons that are still unclear, Bettman isn't crazy about this idea, which explains why he made a face like he'd eaten a bad oyster every time he was asked about moving the Preds to the Golden Horseshoe. We haven't thought about this, he said a couple of times on Monday.

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