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Will NHL be back? Definitely maybe

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It’s a question I’m asked every day. "Will the NHL be back in Winnipeg next fall?"

The prospects have improved but the definitive answer remains, "Maybe."

Especially after Goldwater Institute CEO Darcy Olsen told the Free Press Thursday she has heard the NHL is courting other buyers in case Matthew Hulsizer cannot complete a deal for the Phoenix Coyotes. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is once again considered a potential player in the purchase.

There is no deal to bring an NHL team back to Winnipeg already signed and delivered, despite what many want to believe.

What does exist is a pair of problems, in the Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers, that need fixing.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is working on solving one of those issues with Matthew Hulsizer in Phoenix. When he’s done there, he’ll turn his attention to the Thrashers.

The conventional thinking in NHL circles goes as follows: Bettman has two problems and two handy solutions in Hulsizer and True North Sports and Entertainment. Hulsizer for Phoenix and True North for Atlanta.

Bettman is reluctant to pull the plug on the troubled Phoenix deal and relocate the Coyotes to Winnipeg because that would leave him without a solution in Atlanta.

The rumour mill keeps spitting out reports of Hulsizer walking away from this deal but that’s simply not true. Bettman, the City of Glendale and Hulsizer all continue to work on closing this sale.

Winnipeg is a soft landing for Bettman. He gets a newish building and hockey organization that has spent 15 years developing its plan. All backstopped by the Chipman and Thomson families, making the ownership group one of the finest the league could ask for in terms of financing and hockey acumen.

It’s a dream scenario in many ways and don’t believe the crap you read about the NHL Board of Governors not wanting Winnipeg in the club.

Quite the contrary, we’re told. Mark Chipman, who has spearheaded True North’s bid for an NHL franchise, has impressed Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly.

Chipman is said to have many allies at the ownership level and Thomson is only the richest man in Canada and ranked in the top 20 world-wide. To suggest the NHL doesn’t want these guys in the club is laughable.

Back to the two problems.

There are reports, that despite the Goldwater Institute’s threat of a lawsuit over Hulsizer’s deal with the City of Glendale, the league has lined up buyers for $50 million of the $116 million in bond sales required for the deal to go forward.

"We are continuing to work with the relevant parties to complete a transaction," was all Daly offered in an email on Thursday.

Goldwater continues to wage its war against the deal and on Thursday provided an example from New York City where a bond deal based on parking revenue has gone bad.

Taxpayers financed $102 million in bonds to be paid back with parking revenue at Yankee Stadium.

Parking revenue is 40 per cent under projections with a debt repayment shortfall of $5.5 million last year. Glendale has hinged its deal with Hulsizer on parking revenue at Arena. Goldwater doesn’t believe the 5,500 parking stalls at the rink will meet the expected $7 million in yearly debt repayment and a similar outcome as the one in New York City is feared.

With the Coyotes on the verge of a playoff run, there is potential the deal could gain momentum. Sellouts are likely, even in Phoenix, once the post-season begins and don’t be surprised if the 15 years of futility is forgotten for a short time. All will be rosy, with fans in the stands and the cash registers ringing.

We believe it will be short-term and once the buzz fades the problems associated with NHL hockey in Phoenix will return.

Bettman will hang in on the Phoenix deal at least until the Coyotes season is done. He’s not going to deem the club a lame duck with tickets still to be sold. So it wouldn’t surprise us, if in all the warmth and fuzziness of a playoff run, more bond money comes forward.

It also wouldn’t surprise us if it didn’t happen. It’s a coin flip.

An NHL executive told us the other night the situation in Atlanta is far worse than anyone is letting on. The owners have approached Bettman on a number of occasions in attempts to unload the franchise.

There is limited interest in the Thrashers in terms of local ownership stepping up to keep them in Atlanta.

Just as important is the limited appetite among NHL leaders to spend much time working on this file. Phoenix has consumed more time and money than the league could have ever imagined and once it’s done — Atlanta will be solved one way or another in short order.

So back to the original question.

Here’s our take. Phoenix needs to get solved by the end of the Coyotes season. If it doesn’t, Bettman will likely be forced to take action and sell the team to True North for relocation to Winnipeg.

Assuming Phoenix gets fixed, Bettman will turn to Atlanta and put a short clock on a possible sale for local ownership. If and when that clock runs out, he’ll tell Thrashers ownership to call Chipman and try and make a deal.

Like we said, maybe.

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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