Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Summer could be chilly for NHL

Plenty of bad news looks ready to emerge

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To suggest that events in the NHL are getting a little bizarre these days screams out for perspective.

It's like saying, "You know, that Ozzy Osbourne is getting a little difficult to understand lately." Or, "Gee, that wacky North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is sure unpredictable recently."

The common response to both aforementioned queries would be: "Lately?!" and "Recently?!"

To speak of the goings-on in the NHL requires the same qualifiers. After all, we've seen NHL commissioner Gary Bettman soft-shoe through his league addresses before, shrugging off any notions of impending doom that forever lurk, real or imagined, on the NHL horizon.

Still, the underlying dysfunction and uncertainty seem to be reaching a critical mass -- more so than your average run-of-the-mill crises -- with each passing day.

First, the Coyotes were fine. Then the team declared bankruptcy and the "alleged" owner Jerry Moyes grabbed a US$212-million life preserver from carpetbagger Jim Balsillie. Then court documents exposed the staggering depth of the Coyotes' losses, which according to Moyes totalled $316 million. Ohmygod.

These are the kind of losses, one presumes, that would make even a GM executive mutter, "Wow, that's some lousy management."

Regardless, the question remains: Is the plight of the Coyotes, which has understandably been a black hole for coverage out of the Toronto media, only masking potential financial firestorms elsewhere?

Just this week, for example, came reports out of Miami that the Panthers were in the process of being sold for an estimated $240 million to a curious outfit called Sports Properties Acquisitions, a publicly held company based in New York, commissioned to purchase sports teams. Apparently, the deal involves parcels of land for development and the otherwise lucrative BankAtlantic Center.

The actual Panthers, on paper, probably aren't any more valuable than the thousands of foreclosed homes in Florida. The GM, Jacques Martin, just bolted for the head-coaching job in Montreal and there's almost zero chance of signing free agent defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.

However, the prospective new owners have vowed to keep the team in Miami. Goody for them. Just like Bettman supposedly has possible owners on the line to buy the Coyotes and keep them in Phoenix.

Except that one of those interested parties was, ta-dah, Sports Properties Acquisitions -- at least, before they surfaced in Florida.

In Tampa Bay, the word on the street is the Lightning are desperate to unload Vinny Lecavalier, who is due to make $10 million this season. They're slashing ticket prices.

And there's already speculation that the Lightning's new ownership group might not make it to October. Other than that, everything's just hunky-dory.

In Ohio, the Columbus Blue Jackets, held up as an ideal expansion location since the team began playing in 2000, are now pleading poverty and claiming to have lost more than $80 million in the last five years. The Blue Jackets' owners want local governments to buy the arena using a tax on beer, wine and liquor. Why? So they can get a cheaper lease. We're sure that will go over well in a recession.

Politician: "Hey, everybody, now that we've spent billions on bailing out banks and automakers, we're going to raise the price of beer so we can keep a hockey team owned by multimillionaires." Taxpayer: "Grab the pitchfork, Mabel."

Of course, the Blue Jackets' owners don't want to talk about possible alternatives if the team doesn't get concessions from the city or state, such as relocating the team. That would be gauche.

Meanwhile, reports came out of Atlanta last month concerning the possible sale of the Thrashers to a group led by Vancouver developer Tom Gaglardi after the current ownership admitted to hiring an agency to "explore inquiries" from possible investors.

Everyone denies any teams will be moved. They'll tell you (insert team's name here) will survive. The future is bright.

Perhaps. But wasn't that what Bettman, et al. were saying about the Coyotes a few months ago?

Indeed, you get the sense that once the last two remaining battles are over later this month -- Detroit vs. Pittsburgh and Bettman vs. Balsillie -- there's going to be some major news coming out of NHL headquarters.

And we haven't even mentioned the situation in Nashville, which has grown eerily silent, or owner Tom Hicks's missing debt payments in Dallas, or Charles Wang threatening to move the Islanders to Kansas City.

One of these days, it's going to blow. Just like the day the Coyotes stunned the NHL by declaring bankruptcy.

Yes, it's getting a little bizarre out there. And it promises to be a busy summer, indeed.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2009 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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