NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may want to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale but he admitted Tuesday night it’s really no longer in his control.
"The league is only the selling party," said Bettman. "This deal is between the prospective buyer and the City of Glendale. It’s up to them."
The prospective buyer is Matthew Hulsizer and he and the City of Glendale have become embroiled in a battle with Arizona taxpayer watchdog the Goldwater Institute.
Hulsizer and Glendale have constructed a deal that would see the city sell $116 million in bonds in order to front Hulsizer $100 million of the NHL’s demanded $170 million price for the team.
Goldwater has deemed the arrangement to be illegal and in contravention of the state’s gift clause statute which prevents government from subsidizing private business with taxpayer dollars.
Goldwater has threatened to sue should the deal be finalized and in effect, according to Bettman, blocked the sale of the bond and now threatened the future of the Coyotes in Phoenix.
"They’ve put a chill on the sale of the bonds," said the commissioner, who along with his deputy Bill Daly travelled to Arizona on Tuesday to meet with Glendale city officials, Coyotes management, players and staff. "But for one thing we’d be done. There’s a deal structured for Matt Hulsizer to buy the Coyotes from the league. There are arrangements in place approved by the City of Glendale that would enable the Coyotes to live happily ever after in Jobing.com. You have to ask yourself what is the problem? In short, the Goldwater Institute has placed a cloud on the bonds. They’ve threatened to challenge the legality of the Hulsizer-Glendale transaction and the bonds themselves."
Bettman said time is running out on the sale but wouldn’t put a deadline in place.
"I will not say today when the end is and I will not set a deadline. But at some point, we may have no choice but to begin pursuing our other alternatives," he said. "We have options but I’m not going to discuss them. We’re obviously aware of the interest in Winnipeg. We are greatly appreciative of that interest. But I don’t want to do or say anything that raises expectations."
True North Sports and Entertainment made an offer last spring to buy the Coyotes and it’s understood if the deal in Phoenix falls apart - they’re prepared to resurrect that offer.
Earlier in the day, Hulsizer responded to rumours that the deal was being restructured saying that wasn’t the case.
"I am prepared to honor my deal, which is lawful," Hulsizer said. "It’s a free market, so if someone else wants to step in they should... I wouldn’t pay more and shouldn’t. I don’t know why the NHL would cut its price. I don’t know about Glendale cutting the bond offering."
Bettman placed the blame directly at Goldwater’s feet.
"It’s become increasingly clear to me the Goldwater Institute can be very obstructionist. In light of their conduct in this matter, I question whether this is really an organization that is concerned with the public interest despite a mission statement that calls for free enterprise," said Bettman. "I quite frankly don’t know who the people there report to or are accountable to but it fascinates me that whoever is running the Goldwater Institute can substitute their judgment for that of the Glendale city council. In effect, they’re over-turning a duly enacted resolution in the city and one that was enacted in public session.
"Without actually filing a lawsuit, Goldwater is having its way simply by threatening. I’m not even sure they think they have a good lawsuit. We are told two independent law firms looked at this and said the transaction is legal under Arizona law."
On Monday, Goldwater released a statement from Olsen on the sale and the institute’s opposition to it.
"Let me be clear: the Goldwater Institute will not stop this investigation," wrote Olsen. "The $100 million payment to Mr. Hulsizer is primarily in return for the sale of parking lot revenues by the team to the city. However, the City may already own a significant portion of those rights. If so, the city essentially is "selling" parking revenue rights to itself, which would be an obvious sham and a clear violation of the gift clause. The city insists the team owns the parking rights. Unfortunately, it has not yet been able to demonstrate that it does. It has identified numerous documents in support of its assertion, but they tend to show the opposite."
Goldwater has insisted any further meetings with Glendale, the NHL or Hulsizer be carried out in public and with members of the media present.
Bettman was not interested in such an arrangement.
"I requested a meeting today with (Goldwater CEO) Darcy Olsen and I was told no but I could have a joint news conference. This situation is far too serious for such game-playing," said Bettman. "My hope is somehow Goldwater and Glendale can find a way to get this done promptly. So where does this leave us. We’re not yet done. We haven’t given up and we’re not giving up. Our commitment remains as strong as ever but time is running out."