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NHL-calibre city? We've now got it on paper

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Last weekend's news that the NHL has referred to True North Sports and Entertainment in an agreement between the league and the City of Glendale tells us a bunch of things, but key among them is how close Winnipeg came in recent weeks to getting an NHL franchise for the coming season.

That possibility has passed for now and Winnipeg without doubt will have its Manitoba Moose competing in the AHL for the 2010-11 season. But the wrong twitch by Glendale's city council last week could have seen the Phoenix Coyotes relocated to Winnipeg under the ownership of True North partners Mark Chipman and David Thomson.

In fact, the City of Glendale said in a written statement Monday the NHL demanded proof of US$25 million to cover future NHL losses in Phoenix be made available by Thursday of last week or the team would move immediately.

While True North won't talk about its negotiations and pursuit of an NHL team, a leaked agreement between the NHL and the City of Glendale says the Winnipeg outfit had all the fine points of a deal, including a price in the neighbourhood of US$160 million, hammered out and ready to close at some point last week.

"We have maintained all along that we'd respect the process between the NHL and Glendale. From our perspective, now that those two parties have come to a satisfactory agreement, we here in Winnipeg can put this issue to rest for a while," True North director of communications Scott Brown said Tuesday. "Our primary focus has been on the Manitoba Moose and the American Hockey League for some time now and our goal is to once again ice a good product that competes for the Calder Cup."

News broke Friday that the NHL and Glendale had come to terms to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix for another season, with the local government on the hook for losses up to US$25 million if a buyer willing to keep the club in Arizona could not be found.

In the agreement, the league states that should the city not find a suitable buyer by Dec. 31 of this year, the league would sell the franchise for relocation.

The agreement says the league has "a bona-fide offer from a viable purchaser who would relocate the hockey team to another market for the 2010-11 season and contemplates that the owners (the NHL) would break even on their investment in the team through the end of the 2009-10 NHL season as well as the NHL potentially receiving a relocation fee."

Bankruptcy

The league purchased the Coyotes out of bankruptcy for US$140 million and spent US$20 million operating it last season.

The Free Press reported over the weekend the "viable purchaser" is True North and the fact the NHL put this into a binding agreement with Glendale tells us more about the relationship between Chipman and the NHL than anything we've seen or heard before. In essence, the NHL has blessed Winnipeg as a relocation market. They've determined the market, the building and ownership are all suitable for one of their franchises and they're prepared to move a team here.

The threat of Winnipeg has remained unspoken throughout the NHL's negotiations with the City of Glendale but that's no longer true.

The Free Press reported early last week negotiations between the league and Glendale city council had stalled and that a "disconnect" existed between the two parties.

Winnipeg was used, as the demand by the NHL reported by Glendale clearly points out, to reignite those talks. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was so confident in the progress of talks between the league and True North, he was able to tell Glendale in writing -- get it done, or else.

No doubt, Winnipeg was major leverage for the NHL in its discussions with Glendale and while some will view it as being used, it really just cements a relationship between True North and the league that puts this city in position to relocate the Coyotes or another franchise in the near future.

The NHL and True North have had the framework of a deal in place for some time but very recently it must have gone well beyond that for the league to sign a binding agreement that places a deadline of Dec. 31 on sale possibilities for the Coyotes.

New York lawyers, of which the NHL has many, don't sign off on agreements unless there is sufficient cover, in this case, a purchase agreement between the league and True North that satisfies everyone's concerns and only needs a few signatures to become final.

This story should now quiet down, but should the summer pass without a new buyer in Phoenix, expect it to heat up again. Only now we know the NHL has once again deemed us worthy in all ways.

They've even put it writing.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2010 C1

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