Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Here's hoping Bettman truly is a spiteful little man

It could be Winnipeg's best chance for return to NHL

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Let's preface this by saying there's a lot of reasons we don't directly link the financial Armageddon of the Phoenix Coyotes to our fair city.

Foremost is out of respect to the hockey team that currently resides in the MTS Centre and the folks who operate the Manitoba Moose, who, as we speak, are more than halfway to a potential AHL championship. We understand they appreciate talk of the NHL in Winnipeg as much as the NHL appreciates doomsday scenarios about the Coyotes overshadowing their otherwise brilliant post-season.

Which is to say, not at all.

Besides, any speculation of the Coyotes' relocation has centred on Hamilton or a second team in Toronto, given that's the intention of BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, whose $212.5-million bid for the bankrupt Coyotes remains on the table.

But the news out of Phoenix -- which for the first time links Winnipeg and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to the city -- cannot be ignored.

In a Phoenix courtroom late Friday night, court documents revealed that on April 3, Bettman informed a high-ranking Coyotes official that the NHL would consider moving the team not to Hamilton, but to Winnipeg, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.

In the court filing, Earl Scudder, a lawyer who works with Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes, said in the affidavit that he told Bettman that there was interest "by a purchaser from Canada that wanted to move the team to Southern Ontario." (aka Balsillie).

But the filing said Bettman replied that the NHL wouldn't approve relocating the Coyotes to Hamilton because Copps Coliseum was over 30 years old. Scudder alleged that Bettman added: "If the team did return to Canada, it would be to Winnipeg."

A word of caution. This is a statement from a third party and not verified to date by Bettman himself. But ask yourself: Why would Scudder not be telling the truth?

After all, it's common knowledge that Bettman and Balsillie are engaged in a corporate death match. Bettman would only allow a team owned by Balsillie into southern Ontario over the his dead carcass. And it appears Balsillie would be just fine with that.

Look, this has nothing to do with the contentious issue of whether Winnipeg can even afford to feed and clothe an orphaned NHL franchise. That's a debate that won't be decided until a team officially becomes available and the citizenry, both individual and corporate, will be asked to pony up at least $80 million a year or shut up already.

Instead, at this moment, the struggle over the Coyotes possible relocation has everything to do with a blood feud between a rogue wannabe owner and the stubborn-as-hell league commissioner, who, frankly, has never proven any special affinity to Winnipeg, outside of token comments in the last two years that the prairie city that lost the Jets back in 1996 might be a potential NHL destination someday.

But Bettman only made those comments in the context that the NHL wasn't interested in relocation or expansion anywhere, let alone Winnipeg.

So do Bettman's alleged comments about preferring Winnipeg over Hamilton, in regards to the Coyotes potential relocation, mean anything? Well, yes and no.

They mean nothing without a potential owner, and Mark Chipman, chairman of the True North Sports and Entertainment Complex, has, while expressing his interest to the NHL as a potential franchise site, has repeatedly stressed that the economics of the NHL in particular and North America in general makes projecting the long-term viability of an NHL team surviving at the MTS Centre uncertain.

 

Chipman has also said on record, repeatedly, that while annual operating costs for an NHL team in Winnipeg could be met, there is no existing ownership in the city that could afford a purchase price in excess of $200 million, the supposed going rate of league franchises.

All we're saying, based on the latest revelations out of Phoenix, is this: Even if Bettman was always resistant to the NHL returning to Winnipeg, what if returning to Winnipeg would, in effect, come at the expense of his most despised nemesis Balsillie?

What if a man who was once considered Winnipeg's worst enemy when the Jets left would morph, out of spite, into the city's biggest advocate?

Yes, it's a little premature to speculate on what a couple of paragraphs in a court document from a third party could ultimately mean as it relates to Winnipeg and the NHL.

But, if true, it could also mean that Jim Balsillie's grand bid to rip the Coyotes from NHL control -- and attempt to defy league owners in an ugly legal battle to usurp Bettman's authority -- just may have put little 'ol Winnipeg on the NHL map again in the process.

Not because Winnipeg would be a better NHL market than Hamilton, of course.

But because Winnipeg just may be Bettman's ultimate "screw you" to Balsillie.

Perhaps, the commissioner will even chortle while sending such a message by text. You know, using his BlackBerry.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2009 C1

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