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Death watch

If the deal in the desert dies, reincarnation in Winnipeg won't be overnight

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There will not be any announcement at Portage and Main this week to reveal news that the NHL is returning to Winnipeg.

If you're hoping for that — stop. You'll only be disappointed.

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There is, however, a chance that the NHL will determine it has exhausted all avenues to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona and begin to look at other options.

Winnipeg, we have come to understand, is at the top of the list of those options. But even if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman picks up the phone and tells True North's Mark Chipman it's time to start talking about a potential purchase of the franchise for relocation -- there will still be the matter of a sale agreement to hash out as well as a blessing from the NHL's board of governors.

That's a lot of steps, so cool your, uh... sorry, jets.

Reports are swirling north and south of the border that the NHL is on the verge of either closing this sale or calling it dead.

Any announcement, if one is to come at all as a result of a collapsed sale of the Coyotes to Matthew Hulsizer, would be weeks or months away.

There's a process that would need to be executed and it requires work and time and lawyers and money.

Chipman's True North Sports and Entertainment has all of the above, but the machine has to be put into action before it can spit out an NHL franchise for the city of Winnipeg and we're unsure if it's even turned on or perhaps quietly idling.

Bettman remains tied to Phoenix at this point as the Coyotes are an official franchise of the NHL and he'll be looking behind every cactus for an answer that keeps the team in Glendale's Jobing.com Arena. He's been doing that for more than two years, so don't expect him to suddenly quit.

Bettman, it should be noted, is quite resourceful when it comes to digging up monied folks willing to invest in shaky sports franchises. So don't count him or this bizarre sale agreement in Glendale out.

The commish is still swinging and he can land an unexpected jab at any moment.

Why is Bettman working so hard to save this clunker? That's a question that's being asked all over the province and likely this country.

For starters, just because many of us are convinced a return of the NHL will work in Winnipeg, there are many others who don't believe. CBC's resident genius Mike Milbury ran off at the mouth on Saturday night suggesting Winnipeg, "will need a sugar daddy willing to lose $20 million a season."

Milbury was quickly shut down by ESPN's Pierre LeBrun and host Ron McLean, who apparently have done more homework on the subject, but the reality is many NHL types are still skeptics when it comes to Winnipeg.

There's also the issue of optics. Solving the problem in Phoenix with Winnipeg, the city that watched its NHL franchise move south to Arizona 15 years or so ago does look a little like a dog chasing its tail.

Be that as it may, Winnipeg is likely Bettman's top option should things fall apart in Phoenix. True North made a bid to buy the Coyotes last spring so it would seem they're convinced the NHL will work here and they've proven themselves astute where this market is concerned with a successful concert, event and professional hockey operation.

Chipman's partner in True North is David Thomson, who picked up where his father left off and has amassed a fortune in the neighbourhood of $19 billion. So, if you want to slip into Milbury's strip-joint vernacular, there is a sugar daddy in the picture.

But let's be clear -- Chipman and Thomson aren't entering this venture to lose money. Do they want to bring a seventh NHL francise to Canada? Fer, sure, eh.

Pour unlimited cash into an unsuccessful business? No way.

These two men come from bloodlines with elite business DNA and both have worked to enhance the family war chest not squander it. They'll put their money behind an NHL team in Winnipeg only if it makes sense. Bottom line.

But before True North gets its chance to answer all the doubters, they need a team and there's still no promise of that becoming a reality despite all the madness surrounding the team in Glendale.

Lawsuits are beginning to stack up while Bettman spins his Rolodex looking for risk-taking financiers. Media across the country are split on the issue -- some say Bettman will get a deal in Arizona while others say he's already looking for an exit strategy.

The next 48 hours should be telling.

No one can say for certain how this will all end but thankfully for all involved, and that includes Winnipeg hockey fans, resolution appears imminent.

One way or another.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2011 C1

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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 www.winnipegfreepress.com
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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