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Southern comfort awaits us

Thrashers owners have eyes for 'Peg

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TORONTO -- The whirring sound one can hear coming out of the desert right now is Gary Bettman furiously pumping on a hamster wheel in an effort to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.

The cheering in the background? Some of it is from Coyotes fans, but the real loud cowbell and drum-banging stuff, that's from the clubby, leather-and-mahogany set in Atlanta.

In between hauls on faux Cubans and long, breathless slurps of 18-year-old single malt, the monied partners of Atlanta Spirit, the group that owns the Thrashers, are watching the action in Arizona very intently.

"They want to sell and they have no options other than Winnipeg," a source close to the transaction told the Free Press. "They want the NHL to solve its issues in Phoenix and sell the team to (Matthew) Hulsizer so they can then sell to the group in Winnipeg.

"The NHL will let them sell. This market has failed once before and these guys have been trying to sell for years and no local group has come forward. They are desperate to sell and the Winnipeg guys are the only ones with money ready to go."

Former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said last week he'd like to put together a group to buy the Thrashers, but he himself didn't have the "$80 million to $100 million" required to make a deal.

"If the NHL gives Spirit the green light to sell to Winnipeg, the team will sell in the neighbourhood of $145 million, with the NHL taking its cut off the top for a relocation fee and Spirit receiving somewhere around $100 million," said the source. "That's more than they can expect to get from a group that wants to keep the team here. The team is a financial disaster and no one wants to touch it."

As much as some want an NHL franchise to return to Winnipeg, the owners of the Thrashers want to get rid of one.

Seems like a perfect match, except for those pesky Coyotes and the drama in the desert.

While Bettman does his very best to fix his problem in Arizona with a complicated financing package that would allow Hulsizer to ascend to the throne and take ownership of the Coyotes, the Thrashers must wait.

But the waiting is likely to be soon over. Whispers out of the NHL's New York offices have the clock on the deal in Phoenix about to expire -- this week or next. Phoenix is far from over, with any number of hoops, including the Goldwater Institute and its threat of a lawsuit, to jump through.

True North Sports and Entertainment has been working with the NHL for some time on a deal to bring the Coyotes to Winnipeg should the deal in Arizona fall apart.

The league will need to determine where its teams will be located for next season by mid-May at the latest in order to work out a schedule.

Should the league get its desired result in Phoenix, it would have very little time to orchestrate a deal between True North and Atlanta Spirit. But as Bettman pointed out recently in regard to the Coyotes, the league is very cognizant of Plan B scenarios.

Presumably, if True North has most of the paperwork on a relocation transaction completed in terms of the Coyotes, a lot of that legwork could be transferred to a deal regarding the Thrashers.

The details of the deal the league is now trying to put together that would allow Hulsizer to close and keep the team at Glendale's Jobing.com Arena are unknown. Speculation has Hulsizer putting in more real money and the NHL dropping its asking price of $170 million.

There's also talk of a deferred payment schedule, with the league still getting its sticker price, just not right away.

Bettman's owners will not be happy about taking a haircut on the Coyotes, and a hefty relocation fee from a Thrashers sale could go a long way towards easing that pain.

It's been said for a while that the NHL has two troubled franchises and only one automatic solution in Winnipeg.

Lots has changed in this debacle, but one thing has remained constant, and that's True North.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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