Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Problems piling up for NHL, Bettman

CBA, Coyotes a lot for commish to handle

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There was a city council meeting in Glendale, Ariz., on Tuesday night and, not surprisingly, there was no progress for the Phoenix Coyotes and their ownership woes.

What has been apparent to many of us for a very long time is now becoming reality to the good people of Glendale: No one is willing to pay for the franchise as it is positioned.

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At the same time, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is faced with the difficulty of having to deal with NHLPA hard-ass Don Fehr and what is warming up into a nasty little piece of CBA negotiating.

Two of the last four labour agreements Fehr has negotiated came after a work stoppage of some sort and the NHLPA's refusal to give its consent on realignment should serve as a warning the union won't be rolling over on any issue, big or small.

Bettman now has to worry about all 30 NHL franchises and his focus can't be diverted to the Coyotes.

For the people of Quebec City or Seattle or Kansas City this is good news. Just like Winnipeg needed the perfect storm to move the NHL off its stance of no franchise relocation, the same goes for those markets. A combination of no buyers in Phoenix and a need to get a deal done in the easiest manner due to Bettman's CBA trouble is akin to having the stars align as they did for Winnipeg last spring.

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Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs announced she can't even get a return phone call from Greg Jamison, who at one point was involved in a potential purchase.

Jerry Reinsdorf could take the franchise off the NHL's hands but don't expect him to pay anywhere near the $140 million the league shelled out to buy the club from a bankruptcy court. Reinsdorf isn't in the habit of paying over market value and the Coyotes aren't worth anywhere near that amount.

The $50 million the people of Glendale have put up to cover losses over the last two seasons won't be recovered in any purchase agreement that sees the team stay in Glendale.

Reinsdorf is keeping his hat in the ring but as Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley says, "And if this whole thing comes down to desperate, final-hour negotiations with Jerry Reinsdorf, you might as well just give him the keys to the city now."

Bettman will have a difficult time selling a financial haircut to his owners. Not if there is someone willing to pay full pop or more for the right to move the 'Yotes.

The only purchase offers involving cold, hard cash have been from two Canadian groups -- first Jim Balsillie and secondly True North, and they were based on relocating the team to a traditional hockey market.

True North is out of the game now, having bought the Atlanta Thrashers and turned them into the Jets where the only thing louder than the roar of the soldout building is the whir of the cash counting machine in the basement of the MTS Centre.

Balsillie and his NHL ownership aspirations have not been heard from in some time.

If Bettman is to get his owners back the money he used first to buy the Coyotes and then to operate them, he needs somewhere in the vicinity of $170 million.

No one, as has been clearly demonstrated over the past two years, is willing to pay that kind of money to keep the club where it sits.

There's been lots of talk about Quebec City wanting a team. Now is the time to see the colour of their money.

There's a team available and on the market. Maybe Bettman wants to keep it in Phoenix but he doesn't have enough hands to fight two battles right now. Fehr is a formidable opponent and will require all of the commissioner's attention.

But, just as True North proved last spring, the only way to acquire a franchise for relocation is to make it easy on the NHL. Have the money, have an owner and have a plan.

Talk is cheap and the Coyotes, if the league sells them for relocation, won't be. Bettman hasn't had to say no to Quebec City or Seattle or anyone for that matter because no one has put a cheque in his hand.

Sooner or later this deal will come down to money and who really has it. True North had the cash.

Does someone else? Now is the time to prove it.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2012 D1

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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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