WINNIPEG — Though it's a surprise to some, court documents filed in the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy case suggest the NHL hasn't forgotten about Winnipeg.
In an affidavit filed late Friday, Earl Scudder, a lawyer for Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes, alleged that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told him he preferred to move the Coyotes to Winnipeg rather than Hamilton.
The conversation Scudder referred to, in early April, regarded a potential offer the Coyotes were contemplating from a Canadian buyer who was interested in moving the team to southern Ontario.
Scudder said Bettman told him the league wouldn't approve of moving the Phoenix franchise to Hamilton because of the age of that city's Copps Coliseum and that, "if the team did return to Canada, it would be to Winnipeg."
Bettman also said a new team in southern Ontario would have to be an expansion club, the affidavit said.
Asked to comment on Bettman's alleged remarks about Winnipeg, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Free Press on Saturday they're consistent with the league's position.
"I don't think I would have been a party to that conversation specifically," Daly wrote in an email. "But there were conversations over time about what might happen if there were absolutely no other options in Phoenix.
"And, certainly, we have consistently maintained that we would be open to exploring the possibility of bringing NHL hockey back to Winnipeg."
Scudder's comments in the court filing also didn't surprise True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman.
"We don't know if he (Bettman) said it but if he did, it's not inconsistent with what he's said in the past and certainly that he's not opposed to going back to Canada," Chipman said Saturday.
Chipman, whose company controls the NHL-suitable MTS Centre, said most of the news from the court case underscores the value of the southern Ontario market for the NHL and that the league wants to protect all its future interests there.
But Scudder's comment does not mean there is any plan to bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg, Chipman said.
"I'd rather not comment any further on this because it opens a can of worms that leads to nowhere right now," Chipman said.
The remarks about Winnipeg -- where the Coyotes franchise was located prior to 1996 -- are a side issue in the bankruptcy filing by Moyes. The NHL has challenged the filing and a hearing is slated for Tuesday in a Phoenix courtroom.
Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy nearly two weeks ago, already with an offer of $212.5 million from RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie to purchase the debt-laden team. That offer is contingent on being able to move the team to Hamilton.
The NHL contends that after providing millions in funding to keep the Coyotes operating during the 2008-09 season, Moyes signed documents relinquishing control of the franchise and therefore has no authority to place the team in bankruptcy.
Bettman and the league are also vigourously defending their right to control the process of another team locating in southern Ontario. They said they were working on another offer to purchase the team and keep it in Phoenix.
Lots of talk, but...
Speculation on Winnipeg's major-league hockey team has popped up regularly since the team left 13 years ago, especially since 2005 when the new collective bargaining agreement with players changed the financial formula and made it slightly more likely Winnipeg might one day get a team.
January 2007: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman utters the words "NHL" and "Winnipeg" in the same sentence for the first time. "Under the new CBA, we haven't studied it, but I wouldn't rule it out... The fact of the matter is, it's not something we currently have a plan to do. Even though we haven't done the homework, I believe there might be a world under the partnership we have with the players, with the salary cap, that Winnipeg probably could support an NHL team." Giddy speculation ensues but the capital costs of buying a team remain prohibitive.
May 2007: During the provincial election, Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen promises to work to bring back the Jets, a promise widely seen as a pie-in-the-sky blunder.
July 2007: It's revealed that True North chairman Mark Chipman met with NHL executives and made a presentation to the league's heavyweights in New York about the possible expansion or relocation of a team to Winnipeg.
February 2008: Instead of ducking the topic, Chipman utters some positive words about the NHL's return to Winnipeg during a one-on-one interview with the CBC's The National. "The game's growing in Canada. The revenues that are supporting that league -- or much of them since the lockout -- have come out of this country," said Chipman. "So I think it's logical for them to look back to Canada, not just to this market but to one or two others."