How Many Phoenix Cards Is NHL Commisioner Gary Bettman Holding?

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIApril 2, 2010

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 2:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media before a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers on October 2, 2009 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, there has been an endless parade of speculative articles about the future of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Pro-Canada fans are hanging on to every glimmer of information that is dropped like a crumb off the table that the Phoenix Coyotes story will end with a move back somewhere to the North.

But while most pro Canada fans claim that there is a logical, clear path present, in reality the picture is pure murk.  Here are the solid facts:

The NHL doesn't want to keep running the Coyotes indefinitely at a horrendous loss and has set a June deadline, when the arena lease is up to get a local owner.

The city of Glendale will be the biggest loser if no lease and and owner is approved and the NHL will be able to pack up and leave without repercussions.

Only two bidders have emerged with any commitment to Phoenix and they are limited in themselves:

A Canadian-American group called Ice Edge that wants to play five games a year in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and the resuscitated Jerry Reinsdorf wants an out clause if Phoenix doesn't turn a profit in a reasonable time.

Supposedly Canadian billionaire Dave Thomson has talked to the NHL about returning the Coyotes to Winnipeg.  He is being described as a "backup plan."

Most pro-Canada (particularly pro-Winnipeg) supporters believe it is inevitable that the Phoenix bids will fail and the NHL in desperation will be forced to turn to Thomson to bail them out.

Actually what will happen after June is pure speculative murk at present.

Most of Canadian press (except in Winnipeg) have taken the sensible rule, "Believe it when you see it."

The other sensible rule they are following is not to underestimate NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, because he and the NHL are holding almost all the cards.

And Bettman has given nobody any reason to underestimate him.

He has already straightened out the troubled Tampa Bay situation and potentially Florida as well. He has already disposed of Jim Balsillie and Hamilton and has plans to extract more money from ex-NHL owner, Jerry Moyes.

Bettman's strategy has been to play for time and gather as many cards as he can, so that he won't be backed into a corner.

In fact, the only ways that he has been hurt is that he was forced to go to court to get rid of Balsillie and has been forced to buy and run the Coyotes at a loss.

And by no means is it inevitable that the Coyotes will end up back in Winnipeg.

So how many cards is Bettman holding?

No. 1:  Contract the franchise. 

This is probably the option Bettman will choose if he really is cornered.  End of franchise.  End of losses.

No. 2:  Use Ice Edge to buy time. 

He's done this very well. Ice Edge is a dubious bid that will have trouble being accepted by the Board of Governors.  But they've been useful to the NHL, since they have bought time until something better like Reinsdorf and Thomson has emerged. However, Ice Edge is probably a next-to-last playing card.

No 3: Hope Reinsdorf can really keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. 

His hand will be strengthened if the Coyotes do well in the playoffs and attract more local interest. But as a price, he's been forced to accept Reinsdorf's terms for a move clause if the Coyotes still don't turn a profit. 

At the very least, he'll have bought still more time.

No. 4: Promise the return of lost franchises.

Bettman has made a grand tour of Canada and Hartford unofficially listing four terms for a returned team. This is somewhat of a retreat for Bettman, who stripped three teams from Canada and the northern United States in hopes of making the NHL a "big four American sport" by relocating teams in unfamiliar hockey markets. 

But, offering an olive branch allows him to have one more card in his hand. So far, only Quebec is trying to comply with the terms. And if Quebec does fully comply, it still doesn't mean that they would get the Coyotes. 

They could also be paid off with another relocated NHL team, an expansion franchise, or Bettman could be an utter cad and string them along while really ignoring them.

No. 5: Sell the team to Thomson and the too-small Winnipeg arena.

Pro-Winnipeg fans play up every crumb of this, but supposedly all Thomson's status is that of backup. In other words, he'll do, if something better doesn't turn up. And that doesn't sound like a clear path to Winnipeg. 

Thomson himself acts like that is his status, too. His conversations are behind the scenes. He's never publicly announced himself as bidder for a relocated or expansion team like Quebec's champion, Quebecor has announced, or Balsillie did with Hamilton. 

He has never made any statements about what he will do the "get-by" arena Winnipeg has. He would certainly be an acceptable investor to the NHL, but do they really want a team in Winnipeg? 

Why would Bettman tell Quebec and Hartford that the NHL wants a new NHL-size arena of 18,000+ and then not give the same terms to Winnipeg?  Thomson is in the picture, but he is not the clear path that Winnipeg fans like to believe. 

Thomson and a greatly expanded, or brand new NHL size arena would be a credible option.  But read below about who else might be opposed to Winnipeg.

No. 6: Wait to see who crawls out of the woodwork in July.

This is what will probably happen. The only thing for sure is that it won't be Hartford or shunned Hamilton. Possible players include:

A) Reinsdorf, who would buy the Coyotes and move them right away.

B) Quebec, if they came come up with money for a new arena

C) Thomson, if he can come up with a plan that can make Winnipeg more attractive than its potential opponents.

D)  Somebody connected with Kansas City and its 18,000+ arena.

E)  Any investor who wants an NHL franchise but is waiting for the NHL to be clear of Phoenix.  Besides Winnipeg, Quebec and Kansas City, any of Seattle, Milwaukee, Portland, Houston, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and almost any city with a franchise in one of the other major leagues could emerge.

There are other opponents and factors who may have a big say on where the Coyotes end up:

The Detroit Red Wings

They've made no secret that they want to get switched to the Eastern Conference.  They will support the Coyotes being switched to a western city, but not necessarily an eastern one unless they get moved, too.

The Six Canadian Franchise Owners

Being a Canadian NHL franchise owner is not the same as being a Canadian NHL fan.   These owners put their own interests first, not "the good of the Canadian game". 

Their main interest is Canadian TV money. Adding more Canadian franchises means dividing up the pie into smaller portions.  They may say publicly they want more Canadian teams but behind the scenes act otherwise.

They have a long tradition of opposing further Canadian expansion. Vancouver was ignored in 1967 and only grudgingly given a team in 1970.

Canadian owners led the fight against the NHL-WHA merger until 1980. Only Calgary and Ottawa have ever come into the league peacefully.

No better example exists today than Toronto's continued opposition to a Hamilton team.

So while Quebecor and Thomson may be more acceptable than the hated Balsillie, do the Canadian franchise owners really want them?

Balsillie himself reported that at his one meeting with the Board of Governors, he could sense the hostility before he ever opened his mouth.

So before Canadian fans start falling over themselves at the Coyotes' troubles, they had better realize that the path back to Canada is not so clear and that there are many obstacles and opponents (including some not listed here) standing in the way.

And they better realize that until Bettman is truly pinned and he is far from that state, he is holding almost all the cards.

The truest test of Bettman and the NHL's integrity would be if Quebec announced it had enough investors to build an arena and front a bid. 

Bettman has been openly urging Quebec to spend $400 million on a new arena and if he doesn't pay up if they comply with his terms, then the NHL's anti-Canadian policy that Balsillie claims exists would be laid bare for all to see.

But Bettman is a wily operator and no one should underestimate his ability to turn a position of weakness into that of strength.

Only yesterday, it was reported in the Globe and Mail that he has told the Board of Governors that based on the success of the Olympic hockey tournament, he will be able to deliver a much better American TV contract (which comes up for renewal in 2011), perhaps doubling the existing amount.

And ominously, for Canadian expansion, it was also reported that he is willing to consider another southern Ontario team— for a $400 million expansion fee.

By comparison, Tampa Bay sold for $100 million and Bettman wants $160 million for Phoenix.

So, Canadian fans have their work cut out for them if they want more Canadian franchises.

They could see more as early as next year— or wait decades.


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