Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
We've all seen this movie before
I've finally figured out what's happening in Phoenix: It's Winnipeg in 1995 all over again.
Deadlines involving the Coyotes come and go. Schemes to raise money to cover losses get more outlandish. Prospective owners pop up, disappear, then magically reappear again. All the while, there's a fringe group demanding that the City of Glendale not pump more public funds into the NHL money pit.
The only difference, of course, is that nobody really cares.
They can't, because that's the only explanation for the absurd nature of the manic lease negotiations now said to involve Ice Edge Holdings, who re-emerged as potential owners for the team on Thursday -- perhaps due to the small fact that NHL-sanctioned suitor Jerry Reinsdorf was trying to float a $165-million tax balloon that even the insanely generous city fathers couldn't swallow.
All the NHL wants is for the city to cover the Coyotes losses -- which even when modestly operated by the NHL could be between $20 million to $30 million this year. Oh, and don't forget Ice Edge has proposed to have the Coyotes play a handful of games in a small Canadian market thousands of kilometres away.
But by far the biggest development revealed in Scott Burnside's espn.com report Thursday night was that the NHL and True North officials have cobbled together some sort of if-all-else-fails agreement to move the team to Winnipeg if the NHL can't sell to Ice Edge. It's not the first time such a report has surfaced, but it's the first time being reported by credible, international mainstream media outlet.
A few months back the Arizona Business Journal cited sources in Phoenix who said the NHL had brokered a tentative agreement with True North partner and billionaire David Thomson to move the Coyotes to Winnipeg as a "Plan C". Not only did True North officials vehemently deny the ABJ report, they stressed that Thomson would not be involved in any direct negotiations. As an investor, Thomson isn't involved in the day-to-day operations at True North.
Interestingly, as per standard procedure, True North spokesman Scott Brown issued a statement Friday about how the Winnipeg-based group wanted to respect the process and parties involved and reiterated Thompson's arms-length status. But nowhere in the release was there a denial about a tentative side deal between the NHL and True North, as espn.com reported.
Look, we've said in this space countless times that if the NHL doesn't have an emergency plan for the Coyotes they are a few pucks short of a bucket. And I've posited that the entire negotiation with Reinsdorf may have just been a charade in the first place.
That opinion has only been more steeled with this 11th hour flip flop from Glendale council.
But there is also a chance that nothing is real and this is all just bluffs and public posturing. And, yes, Winnipeg could be being played as a diversion or pawn.
All I know is that there are two options left (until that changes, too): The City of Glendale will have to bend over give the NHL its concessions, worth tens of millions, so that the NHL can sell the team to a group with unproven financial wherewithal. I mean, this would only be the 934th time, give or take, that someone with no real money has tried -- some successfully -- to buy an NHL team. You can look it up.
That would mean throwing more good money after bad on a team that has not only never made a dime, but has lost hundreds of millions of dollars. It would mean selling to a group that may or may not be able to afford future losses, which would probably default back to the city. And it would mean facing a possible court challenge by a local government watchdog group, which could delay the sale and leave the league on the hook for the Coyotes losses for next season.
The only other remaining option now would be to stop the pretending and do something the NHL desperately didn't want to do: Sell the team to a Canadian market at a bargain sale price and try to put a happy face on an abject failure in Phoenix.
There's evidence to support the former theory. It can literally be seen in the $180-million jobing.com Arena built with Glendale taxpayer's money.
But just like in Winnipeg when the Jets died, there's ample optics to read the tea leaves another way; where the NHL, with more financially-troubled teams in the weeds, will no longer be able to hold Glendale for ransom, if only because you can't keep supporting a catastrophic mirage.
In other words, no scheme or tax plan or bailout will work because the economic model is fatally flawed.
That sounds so 1995.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2010 D1