The plot thickens in Phoenix

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

Judge Redfield T. Baum's long-awaited decision on whether Jim Balsillie or the National Hockey League will own the Phoenix Coyotes might be no decision, at all.

In a sobering moment early yesterday in Arizona bankruptcy court, Baum hip-checked the army of lawyers from Balsillie, the league, current owner Jerry Moyes and the city of Glendale, stating "there is a third opportunity when we're done here -- no sale. I think it's more than theoretical. You all ought to keep that in mind."

Balsillie's bid of $242.5 million US to move the team to Hamilton and the league's $140 million to anchor it were officially laid out before Baum in the first of two days of extensive testimony. It ended with the league lawyers' own shocker, announcing they won't cross-examine Balsillie today when he and commissioner Gary Bettman were to be centre stage to conclude the hearing.

"You'll have to draw your own conclusions," Bettman said.

It's possible one or both sides sweetens its bid before the end of today.

Baum did say he was opposed to the small dollar amount the league's proposal would provide to Moyes and that the league shouldn't have so much control regarding which creditors get paid.

"I can't approve a bid I don't understand," Baum said.

But contrary to Balsillie's claim -- and popular opinion in Canada -- some people in Glendale do want to keep the Coyotes. Namely, the city fathers, who yesterday threw their weight behind the NHL, which would find a local buyer if it wins.

"We have no objection whatsoever to the NHL bid," city lawyer Wally Baldiga said. "Given the two choices that we have, we are prepared to put our lot in with the NHL. (It) gives us the chance to mitigate our harm. We vehemently reject the (Balsillie) bid."

Glendale had been hoping earlier bids from Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf or Ice Edge Holdings would have been successful.

But both withdrew bids largely because of an inability to strike a new lease deal at Jobing.com Arena.

It's now known that Ice Edge's backers included Argonauts owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski and Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes coach. Both bids might re-surface if the NHL wins.

A snap decision tonight by Baum is not expected and the losing side surely will be quick to appeal.

Balsillie has tried to get around the arena issue by dangling as much as $50 million to escape the 30-year lease.

Experts for both sides had to back-track a bit when pressed on financial data, Balsillie's for the potential losses in Glendale and the league for understating the value of another Canadian team. It was revealed earlier in the day that Balsillie has added former Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean to his staff as adviser, the first actual hockey man on board the potential Hamilton franchise.

Though the NHL seems bent on avoiding a seventh team in Canada, there is growing belief it will eventually put one somewhere in the lucrative southern Ontario market.

Such a team likely would net generous expansion fees to placate the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres and still bring the NHL as much, or more, money than Balsillie's Hamilton bid, at a time of the league's choosing with an owner it can tolerate.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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