Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coyotes' sticky situation just tip of iceberg for NHL

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Anyone of a certain age will remember that act on the Ed Sullivan Show where this guy would frantically attempt to keep a table's worth of plates spinning on sticks.

The guy would rush from one plate to another as they started to wobble, keeping them all from crashing to the ground. Yes, kids, this passed for entertainment in the 1960s. Now go back to your iPods.

There's no better metaphor, however, for the job of NHL commissioner these days, as Gary Bettman's life must be a non-stop marathon of ownership issues, potential sales and -- in the case of the Phoenix Coyotes -- uncertain futures.

So while the latest travails of the Coyotes have Winnipeg salivating for the NHL's return, it's worth noting that when it comes to potential relocation targets, the next bus is probably going to be along in about 15 minutes.

Because if the mess in Phoenix is doing the NHL one favour, it has helped mask troubles and ownership issues all over the map. A recent Hockey News report cited that as many as 10 NHL teams -- a full one-third of the league roster -- are or could be hanging out "For Sale" signs in the coming months. Just this week, the largest investor in the St. Louis Blues notified owner Dave Checketts that they want out. According to The Associated Press, the Atlanta Thrashers owners confirmed last month that they were courting buyers/investors reported to have a "partial or significant" ownership interest. And New York Islanders owner Charles Wang is playing footsie with the owners of the New York Mets, who have expressed interest in moving the Isles to a site adjacent to their brand-new ballpark in Queens.

But perhaps the most eye-opening rumours concern Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz, who according to Hockey News may soon put his team on the market. If true, that would be a devastating loss for the NHL, as the Anschutz Entertainment Group is a sports and entertainment giant that has in its realm the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and the Staples Center. AEG also operates the 19,000-seat Sprint Center in Kansas City, which was considered an NHL expansion or relocation option since it opened in 2007.

If Anschutz wants out of the hockey business, the Kings could start to falter and Kansas City might be a non-starter. Admittedly, that's just speculation at this point, but it might explain why Kansas City has gone from a front-line option for the NHL to a rarely-mentioned afterthought.

There also remain the usual suspects every time the issue of financial stability surfaces: the Carolina Hurricanes, the Nashville Predators, who have long been searching for investors, and the Florida Panthers, who restructured their majority ownership group last year. All of these teams are bleeding enough to make Hawkeye Pierce queasy.

Which leads us to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were recently sold to Boston-based financier Jeff Vinik for a reported $110 million, which includes the arena-management team and five acres of adjacent development property. That's a 10-storey drop from the $206 million that former owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie paid for the Lightning in 2008.

It's true that "reported" sales prices of any NHL team should be looked at with healthy skepticism. But if the going rate for an NHL team was $200-plus million a couple years ago, you have to wonder what the market will bear in 2010 -- especially given that supply in a recession-torn U.S. economy could well exceed demand.

Because if the Coyotes' plight tells us anything, it's that no matter how bad you think money-losing teams are faring, it's probably much worse than the propagandists in the league's New York headquarters would have you believe.

And that's understandable. It's also Bettman's job to assure investors, owners and fans alike that all is well. Keep spinning those plates.

All we're saying is that there soon could be a lot more bargains coming down the pike, and if the NHL is actually asking $160-plus million for the Coyotes (eye-roll) there's absolutely nothing to suggest the price for any struggling NHL outfit will go up in the near future. Indeed, the reverse is true. The NHL's false economy, at least in certain markets, is beginning to crumble.

It's a buyer's market. Just ask Mr. Vinik, who basically bought Steve Stamkos and Co. for next to nothing.

Our point? Maybe it's time for Mark Chipman to start getting a little picky and resist the temptation of grabbing up the first NHL carcass. Wait for the first plate to hit the ground, because that's when all hell breaks loose.

As Ed would say, we could be in for a really big show.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2010 D2

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