Competition Bureau sides with NHL rules on franchise relocations

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OTTAWA - The Competition Bureau ruled Monday that the National Hockey League did not contravene anti-competition laws in its treatment of Research in Motion Ltd.'s co-CEO Jim Balsillie in his failed attempt to buy the Nashville Predators hockey club last year.

The bureau said it conducted the inquiry after media reports raised concerns on whether the NHL was engaging in anticompetitive conduct in opposing Balsillie's controversial acquisition bid.

"We are confident that the NHL's policies are not anticompetitive," said Richard Taylor, deputy commissioner of competition. "We conducted an extensive investigation which established that the NHL's policies were directed at furthering legitimate interests of the NHL, and not to prevent competition. This concludes our investigation of the matter."

In the inquiry, the bureau looked at whether the league's policies regarding franchise ownership transfers and relocation were designed to prevent competition or to further the legitimate interests of the NHL. The bureau said its investigation showed no attempt to prevent competition. Rather, the regulator said, the league was concerned with preserving team rivalries, attracting a broader audience, and encouraging investment in sports facilities by local municipalities.

"We were never concerned about an adverse finding, despite the fact that we were obviously the target of a misguided smear campaign intended to arouse public sentiment, especially in Canada," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press. "Our rules governing franchise ownership and the location of our franchises are legal on their face, and have always been applied in a lawful and non-discriminatory manner. That will continue to be the case going forward."

Balsillie's Waterloo, Ont. company is one of Canada's best-known technology firms and makes the BlackBerry e-mail smart phone. The executive was thwarted in his attempt to purchase the NHL team last year over concerns he was interested in moving the Predators to Hamilton, a southern Ontario city that has long sought an NHL team.

"The Competition Bureau is there to ensure access to markets and effective competition practices in Canada for the benefit of all Canadians," said Richard Rodier, an adviser to Balsillie. "No doubt they conducted the inquiry to the best of their abilities to reach their conclusion, and did what they deemed best to protect the interests of Canadian consumers of professional hockey."

In December, Predators Holdings LLC completed its US$193-million purchase of the Tennessee-based hockey team from Craig Leipold.

Businessman David Freeman will serve as chairman and governor of the company, while San Jose-based William (Boots) Del Biaggio and local businessman Herb Fritch will serve as alternate governors.

The ownership group includes executives in finance and health care, including locals Christopher Cigarran, Thomas Cigarran, Joel and Holly Dobberpuhl, DeWitt Thompson V and John Thompson, along with California resident Warren Woo.

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