Judge calls NHL's bluff

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

PHOENIX -- After years of doing everything to keep Hamilton out of the National Hockey League, the NHL may be ordered today to attach a price to the southern Ontario relocation of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes.

And they are not at all happy about it.

"I don't think we are prepared to put out a number," said Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner of the NHL. But Daly did say, if the matter was ordered by the court, the NHL would have to comply.

Judge Redfield T. Baum indicated late yesterday he will think overnight about whether he will order the NHL to put a relocation and indemnification price on the proposed sale of the Coyotes and move to Hamilton. He could order the NHL, as early as today, to put a figure alongside the $212.5 million US figure BlackBerry boss Jim Balsillie has bid for the franchise in Chapter 11 bankruptcy that would compensate the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and the league for the franchise move.

The price attached to the potential move could pave the way for the Coyotes' move to Hamilton or, in fact, squash Balsillie's bid completely. That is the brilliance of what Judge Baum talked about considering in Court 703 yesterday.

In a bankruptcy ripe with complex issues, conflict and large levels of animosity, Judge Baum cut to the chase with his musing about the relocation price of the Coyotes -- and almost turned this into a one-issue bankruptcy case.

By making the ruling, assuming he does make it, he will force the NHL to indicate it is accepting of a Hamilton franchise after so many snubs and it forces Balsillie to determine just how much he is willing to pay for NHL hockey in southern Ontario.

The decision, if made, could determine the outcome of the case.

When NHL lawyer Shep Goldfein argued the league could not possibly come up with a relocation decision, let alone a fee of any kind, in quick fashion, Judge Baum quickly shot him down. "You have to confront your responsibilies," the Judge said, after hearing Goldfein whine about policy and board of governor meetings and protocol. "If it goes down that path, the league is going to have to go there."

Lawyer by lawyer yesterday, argument after argument, Judge Baum sliced and diced those who made their case before him. He has seen too many filings, read too many pages, admits he never has had a case like this one. He puts up with no nonsense. In court yesterday there were more than 40 lawyers and when somebody indicated the Coyotes weren't worth much, he shot back: "When there's this many suits around, it's worth something."

The Balsillie camp, for the record, seems thrilled about the potential ruling by Baum. Maybe they shouldn't be so thrilled. If the NHL truly wants to be rid of Balsillie, they could price the move so high that it will force him to pull out of the sale of the club. On the other hand, the judge may ask the league not only to come up with a price, but to come up with reasons for the price.

The most recent territorial fees were paid to the Los Angeles Kings when the league expanded to Anaheim. Reports have that figure at around $25 million. In court filings on this case, the number for southern Ontario seems closer to $100 million. Balsillie's lawyer Susan Freeman pushed hard for Baum to make a ruling on the franchise transfer fee yesterday, indicating that time is of the essence. The Balsillie offer expires on June 30. This case may not be back in court until June 22, but when it is, all the costs involved with a franchise relocation may be known.

"Give us your proposal and tell us how you derive at that price," said Freeman, who then referenced the fees paid by the Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche after moving from Winnipeg and Quebec City.

"What were those amounts?" she asked. "How did you determine them? What is a reasonable fee? We think it's far less than the numbers ($100 million) going around."

Judge Baum calls the relocation fee the "ultimate test" of this bankruptcy case. A test the NHL doesn't want to take.


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