Balsillie ready for a fight

Bruce Garrioch, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

OTTAWA — It looks like BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie will have a huge fight on his hands if he wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to southern Ontario.

Yesterday, a league governor predicted Balsillie “will likely never own an NHL team.”

While sources told Sun Media that NHL officials were ready to sign a purchase agreement worth $150-$160 million with Chicago Bulls/White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was caught off guard Tuesday when Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy protection.

While the move allowed Balsillie to make an immediate $212.5-million offer — including $17 million in bridge financing — to move the Coyotes to southern Ontario, several league sources said the chance of the Coyotes moving to the Toronto area are slim.

“I just don’t ever see it happening,” a league executive said. “He’s trying to bully his way into the league.”

It’s estimated the Coyotes, who moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996, have lost more than $200 million since 2001.

It’s believed Reinsdorf — who owns a home in the Phoenix area — is ready to negotiate a new lease with the city and leave the team in Glendale.

Bettman, speaking at a conference with the commissioners of the four major sports, cast doubt on Balsillie’s ability to get approval.

“I don’t know whether or not (Balsillie) could get approved,” Bettman said. “That’s, as I said, something I don’t get a vote on. If in fact it becomes an issue for board consideration, the board of governors of the league will make that decision.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a league governor said if Balsillie wants into the NHL, he’s going to have to follow the proper channels.

Many believe he’s trying to undermine the bidding process after attempts to buy Nashville and Pittsburgh both backfired.

“This is just going to be one big legal battle,” a league official said. “He will never own an NHL team if he keeps going this route.”

Not only would Balsillie have to pay the Toronto Maple Leafs more than $75 million for moving into their territory, the Buffalo Sabres could also demand compensation.

The matter of the bankruptcy protection by Moyes will be heard today in a Glendale court. A legal source said all four major sports will be keeping an eye on today’s court decision because it could set a precedent.

“This is not about whether or not we want a franchise in southern Ontario. This is not about whether or not Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner that the owners would approve. This is about the league’s rules and the enforceability of our rules,” Bettman said.

“Whether or not Mr. Moyes even had the authority to file the bankruptcy petition is something we’re going to get into. This is more about the tactic and I think a challenge to league rules than it is about economic condition of the club, which we believe can with new ownership and with the accommodations the city of Glendale is prepared to make, we think can succeed.”

If approved, Balsillie will likely move the team to Hamilton until he builds a new arena closer to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, west of Toronto. Also, another Toronto-based group has had exploratory talks with the NHL in establishing a new franchise in the north end of Toronto.

NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said the union would support a healthy franchise in Phoenix and added he’d like to see a decision quickly.

“If that can’t happen, I’ve said it many times that I think the league should seriously look at putting another team in southern Ontario — either in Toronto or in the Hamilton/Kitchener area,” said Kelly, who is in Switzerland for the world hockey championship.

— Files from The Canadian Press


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