As fascinating as it’s been to watch the NHL do triple-summersaults through hoops to keep hockey in Phoenix, you can’t help but wonder one thing.
What makes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman think Phoenix, or its suburb of Glendale, is a better hockey market than Winnipeg?
I posed this question to Bettman’s right-hand man, Bill Daly, on Monday.
“We aren’t suggesting it is, necessarily,” was Daly’s response, via e-mail. “But it’s a market we are in, so we (as a league) have made a commitment to it. No different than our efforts to keep the Jets in Winnipeg in the 1990s.”
Well, that almost made me fall off my chair.
To compare what the NHL is doing to save hockey in Arizona with what it did to save hockey in Manitoba some 15 years ago is like comparing player salaries then to now.
Seems to me the league made a petty cash effort to save the Jets, while it’s into the Coyotes to the tune of $170 million, plus.
But the deputy commish stuck to his guns.
“The club was moved only after it was determined that there was no near-term prospect of a new building,” Daly said. “And there was no one who was prepared to own the franchise in Winnipeg under those circumstances.”
OK, fair enough.
But you get the impression Bettman would sit his bare butt down on a cactus at Portage and Main, in the winter, to keep the Coyotes from moving.
First, he started paying the team’s bills when former owner Jerry Moyes stopped. Then he bought the team out of bankruptcy to keep it out of Jim Balsillie’s hands.
What’s happened since has been one mind-numbing twist after another, with would-be buyers dropping in and out of the running for a franchise that loses tens of millions of dollars per season.
Most recently, the NHL has crawled into bed with civic politicians in Glendale, in an effort to help that city sell $100 million in bonds to fund Matt Hulsizer’s purchase of the franchise.
All this while ducking the bullets from intended lawsuits between Glendale and the Goldwater Institute, the watchdog group calling the whole deal illegal.
The poker game continues, Glendale saying “We’ll see your threatened lawsuit, and raise you one of our own,” Goldwater basically saying, “Go ahead, make our day,” late Monday.
Also Monday, Hulsizer dropped a few more chips into the pot, telling the Arizona Republic the Coyotes have lost another $40 million this season, pushing his purchase price to $210 million ($170 million plus this year’s losses).
I don’t hear any violins, though. Getting the city to front him $100 million is still a pretty sweet deal, unprecedented, I’m guessing, in the world of sports franchise transactions.
And if it all falls apart, waiting in the wings is none other than Winnipegger Mark Chipman, one of the men who tried and failed to save the Jets 15 years ago.
Now the head of True North Sports and Entertainment, which spearheaded the construction of the downtown arena, Chipman has done everything right, establishing a relationship with Bettman, studying the league’s economics and making it clear he and billionaire partner David Thomson are willing to take the Coyotes off the league’s hands, if it comes to that.
For the second straight spring, it appears to be coming to that.
But since I’ve always preferred the cautionary approach to the frenetic one, I’ll leave you with Daly’s response to one, last question.
I asked him if it’s safe to say Winnipeg remains the league’s only Plan B.
“No. I don’t think that is accurate,” Daly responded. “I wouldn’t limit Plan B options at this point to moving the club to Winnipeg.”
He wouldn’t elaborate.
And I won’t begin to celebrate.
Not until I hear Gary Bettman say he’s coming to Winnipeg.
Hopefully, with his pants up.
Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or 632-2788.