NHL throws its hat in the Coyotes ring

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

It appears NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to save hockey in the Arizona desert is becoming pricklier by the day.

In a move that smacks of desperation, the league yesterday filed its own bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes through bankruptcy court.

Why on earth would the league want to become the owner of the Desert Dogs, you ask?

In an effort to “maximize the likelihood that the club ultimately will be sold to an acceptable purchaser who is committed to operating the franchise in Glendale,” is how the official NHL statement read.

In other words, to keep the dang thing out of the hands of BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie. At any cost, apparently.

It’s becoming painfully obvious — surprise, surprise — that there aren’t any real bids for a team that loses tens of millions of dollars a year.

Oh, sure, there’s one by Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, worth $148 million — on paper. The same paper they used to bloat attendance figures in Phoenix, apparently.

Reinsdorf’s “offer” reportedly involves no cash, only the assumption of debt, and enough conditions and caveats to choke a horse.

No word on what kind of money the NHL is offering, but it’s clear Bettman is a tad worried about the optics of hanging a Winnipeg-style, garage-sale price tag on one of his precious, southern franchises.

“We believe this step was necessary at this time in order to best preserve and maximize the value of the club asset for the benefit of the club’s creditors and for the community of Glendale,” the NHL statement, by deputy commissioner Bill Daly, said.

The league says if its bid is accepted — an auction is scheduled for Sept. 10 — it will search for a third-party buyer outside of bankruptcy court.

One not named Balsillie.

Good luck with that.

If a suitable buyer hasn’t come forward until now, what makes anyone think they will in a month or two?

And if the league can’t find one?

Who knows? The NHL could operate the Coyotes this season, much the same way the CFL took over the operations of Hamilton and Toronto in successive years, earlier this decade.

Or, we presume, it could fold up shop and turn the lights out on the franchise for a year. Or more.

Of course, that option would no doubt raise the ire of officials in Glendale, who feel they’ve been stiffed, big-time, on their arena lease.

The league says its goal remains to keep the team in Glendale for years to come. But it says here one dark year would become another, then another, then another...

And guess what happens if the court doesn’t accept the NHL’s bid, or Reinsdorf’s?

Why, the bidding could very well be opened up to include those who want to move the franchise to Canada.

Re-enter Billionaire Jim, and his $212-million cheque.

There’s one slight problem with that: NHL owners have already said they’d rather have Osama Bin Laden at their boardroom table.

Apparently, the devil is bald, Canadian and wears a bow-tie.

That issue — the NHL’s outright rejection of Balsillie — has its own court hearing, a week from today.

And so the most interesting hockey game played in Phoenix in years continues, the sticks getting higher and higher, not to mention the stakes.

This thing started when Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes snuck behind the league’s back and filed for bankruptcy, while striking that $212-million side-deal with Balsillie, way back on May 5.

It’s quite a mess Bettman has got himself into.

Don’t see a lot of sympathy for him in these parts, though.

Truth is, a lot of people figure it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Or a nicer franchise.


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