Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coyotes saga has governors demanding answers

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TORONTO -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will walk into his board of governors meeting Saturday with his pockets empty and a $170-million debt still needing to be settled.

That can't be an easy feeling -- even for a seasoned operator like Bettman.

Members of the board of governors have so far kept their sense of humour about the ridiculous wranglings in Phoenix but should they lose their patience, the heat on the deal in the desert could increase dramatically.

It's no secret there are franchises (including most of the Canadian operations) that are tired of propping up their less successful counterparts. The Phoenix Coyotes, who were purchased by the NHL out of bankruptcy for $140 million (the NHL has since spent another $30 million operating the team) are the worst offenders on that list.

Bettman has the support of his board but that doesn't preclude the odd spat behind closed doors. The Coyotes and their lack of an owner or someone willing to buy them with their own money could be fodder for a round of, shall we say, interesting discussion between Bettman and his owners.

The commissioner will update his board regarding the Coyotes sale Saturday at the league's all-star weekend in Raleigh, N.C. How that discussion goes could very well have an effect on the future of the NHL in Winnipeg.

Bettman has waited well beyond his Dec. 31 deadline for a sale of the Coyotes and with no done deal on the horizon for prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer league owners will likely have some questions.

"Where's our money?" comes to mind, as does, "What's the status of the potential sale of the Coyotes to the guys in Winnipeg?"

The answer to the first question could be a little uncomfortable for Bettman. The $170 million the NHL has poured into the Coyotes was believed to have been secured through a deal with Hulsizer that would see the Chicago businessman put up $70 million of his own dough and then scurry up the remaining $100 million from the City of Glendale.

Hulsizer, we're told, is good for his end. Glendale? Not so much.

The city councillors and bureaucrats in the Phoenix suburb have cobbled together a scheme that would see them raise the $100 million through a bond issue that so far has no takers.

Next up for Bettman, considering the sale of the Coyotes isn't done, will be questions about his other options.

To date, the NHL has had a solid escape route to Winnipeg. True North Sports and Entertainment is a partnership of the Chipman and Thomson families that offers the NHL bulletproof ownership. The Chipman family has owned and operated a professional hockey franchise for 15 years and the Thomsons are among the world's most wealthy families.

Why Bettman would choose to leave True North hanging for a deal the likes of which Glendale has cooked up is on the minds of virtually everyone in the hockey world.

True North has been the perfect potential partner, saying nothing publicly and waiting with chequebook in hand. But even its patience isn't infinite. If they're to buy an NHL franchise, they'll want ample time to make sure it gets properly off the ground.

Waiting for Glendale has been admirable but it's become risky. They haven't made a deal and their foot-dragging is encroaching on Bettman's other solution.

Bettman may be getting close to missing the off ramp to Winnipeg. We'll see how well he's read the map if that takes place.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2011 C1

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