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Latest Coyotes news makes it look like Winnipeg got used

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TORONTO -- We lost an NHL team to Phoenix 14 years ago because, passionate Forks rallies or not, we ultimately didn't care enough as a city to pay the high price necessary to keep our team in Winnipeg.

This time around, we may lose an NHL team to Phoenix because we cared too much.

The news out of Arizona on Good Friday was confusing, but no matter how you looked at it, the bottom line was anything but good if you're an NHL fan in Winnipeg. ESPN.com, citing news services which in turn cited sources, reported that two proposed lease agreements that would keep the Phoenix Coyotes in the suburb of Glendale were approved by the city's council.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Business Journal didn't go quite as far, but cited its own sources in reporting that those same two lease proposals, submitted by Ice Edge Holdings and Jerry Reinsdorf, are being finalized by Glendale city council and could be concluded in as little as two weeks.

The Phoenix Business Journal is the same publication that reported earlier this week that the NHL has cut a back-up deal to move the Coyotes to Winnipeg if a deal to keep them in Glendale cannot be concluded.

Are Friday's reports out of Arizona true? Who knows anymore, given the embarrassing amount of misinformation this year surrounding the prospects of the NHL returning to Winnipeg. (I'm still waiting on that March 4 news conference announcing the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg. Running a little late, apparently.) But if there is some truth to Friday's reports either way -- lease deals done or lease deals being finalized -- that's bad news if you're one of those folks who had their hopes up with all the recent talk about the NHL, and the Coyotes in particular, returning to Winnipeg.

Because if Glendale city council is prepared to make concessions and sell the farm to either Ice Edge or Reinsdorf to keep a tenant in Jobing.com arena, then all that recent NHL talk about Winnipeg will go down as just a whole lot of hot air. Again.

And this time, in a roundabout way, we might have ourselves partly to blame. Because if Friday's reports out of Arizona are true -- and that's a big "if" -- it seems clear to me that the NHL very deliberately used against us the interest shown by Winnipeg's Mark Chipman and his True North partner, Toronto billionaire David Thomson, in buying the Coyotes and moving them to Winnipeg.

It was hardly a coincidence that the news of a backup deal to move the team to Winnipeg broke just as NHL executives were meeting with Glendale officials and trying to pry a softer lease deal out of them.

And you have to think that it's more than coincidental that just a few days after that news broke came Friday's word that Glendale city council is suddenly willing to yield on lease concessions they've refused to grant for years now. The Phoenix Business Journal reports Reinsdorf and Ice Edge would get similar lease concessions and, if the concessions are approved, it will ultimately be up to the NHL to choose who takes over in Phoenix.

What? Glendale city councillors became hockey fans this week? Or, more likely, was it the spectre of losing their principal arena tenant to Winnipeg that suddenly got the cash-strapped city's attention.

Look, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman desperately wants to do two things right now: 1. Unload the money-losing Coyotes, which reports suggest the league will lose $20 million on this season, despite the surprisingly strong on-ice play that has the Coyotes a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

 

And 2. Keep those Coyotes in Phoenix or risk seeing his entire Sunbelt experiment collapse.

It's only if Bettman cannot accomplish those two things that Winnipeg comes into play. And if he can use us against us, like it seems he did this week, well, it's not like it will be the first time Winnipeg hockey fans got screwed by Gary Bettman.

True to form, neither Chipman nor his spokesman, Scott Brown, commented Friday when asked if they were aware of the most recent reports out of Phoenix.

"As I indicated earlier," Brown wrote in a text message, "there's no need for a comment from us on the subject."

That silence out of Winnipeg is probably golden in this instance. Because the lesson of Jim Balsillie's drawn-out legal battles to move an NHL team to Hamilton was that it does no good to upset the NHL commissioner. Though Bettman may have succeeded this week in sticking a finger in yet another hole in his crumbling southern dike, Chipman knows it won't be long before another leak gets sprung in Atlanta or Nashville or, given the fluid nature of developments in Phoenix lately, maybe even Arizona again.

Good things will come to those who wait. Just not on this Good Friday, not for the long-suffering NHL fans of Winnipeg.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2010 D1

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