Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL's deal in the desert approaches tipping point

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The NHL has remained patient in its bid to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to a buyer interested in keeping the team in Arizona but how far that patience can be stretched remains to be seen.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may soon be forced to determine whether his defiance in the desert could cost him his soft landing spot.

The NHL is well past its deadline of Dec. 31 to have the Coyotes sold and with a potential lawsuit on the horizon the prospect of a deal closing any time soon is getting dimmer.

No secret

It's no secret Bettman worked out an arrangement last spring with True North Sports and Entertainment to bring the Coyotes to Winnipeg should relocation be required. It's understood the deal could be reactivated but its shelf life is close to expiring.

The commissioner has promised his board of governors he'll get them out of Phoenix clean and whole and the deal with True North is his pocket guarantee. But he won't want to hang around to see the coroner arrive if the current sale can't be consummated.

At some point he'll need to admit it's time to move on. When is that point? Feb. 1? March 1? Certainly no later.

True North was uncomfortable with the timeline last summer and if they're to start operating an NHL franchise will want to begin the process much sooner. As in now.

The organization is in better position to move forward today than it was last May but would still need to sell itself to the Winnipeg public at a different price point. That takes time.

Bettman has to understand True North's position and must gauge the tipping point between helping your old partners or sabotaging your new ones. If Bettman is to move the Coyotes to Winnipeg he'll want to give True North every chance to succeed.

Lead time for sales and preparation is imperative. That's why Bettman set the Dec. 31 deadline in the first place. Going past it was prudent because it appeared at the time a deal was imminent. Is that still the case? Who knows?

It's unlikely Bettman is going to panic but he's got to be close to having a case of happy feet. There is stress on the sale from two fronts: a sagging municipal bond market in the U.S. as well as the deal being viewed unconstitutional by Arizona's most litigious taxpayer lobby.

Agreement

The NHL has worked diligently to help the City of Glendale keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena and appeared to have reached an agreement in December when Glendale city council approved a lease that would pay potential owner Matthew Hulsizer $100 million for parking rights at the arena and $97 million over six years to manage the building.

Glendale's plan centres around a $125-million municipal bond issue to raise money to help Hulsizer buy the Coyotes. The market is making this a difficult and expensive proposition and to date Glendale has failed to move forward.

The Goldwater Institute sounded off alarms when this deal was first publicly aired, suggesting it contravened Arizona's constitutional gift clause that prevents taxpayer money from funding private businesses.

Goldwater could seek an injunction to halt the sale as early as next week and such a move could add months to this negotiation as well as potentially scuttling it altogether.

Goldwater appears unsatisfied with the deal and despite some tweaking of the agreement by Glendale and Hulsizer, a lawsuit is being discussed by the taxpayer watchdog.

Lawsuits are many things but above all they're expensive and time consuming. Bettman has to be tired of spending money and time on a chronic loser like the Coyotes.

Nothing about the NHL preferring to remain in Phoenix rather than sell to True North partners Mark Chipman and David Thomson has made sense to us.

True North has the money, the building and the market and they're ready to close a deal tomorrow.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2011 C1

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