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The Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix following the 1995-96 season. ((sportslogos.net))

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledges time is running short on a pending sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, but he doesn't want fans in Winnipeg to start getting excited just yet.

The league has had the right to start exploring relocation options for the team since Dec. 31, but Bettman says he's still hopeful the proposed sale to investor Matthew Hulsizer will go through soon. Winnipeg is a possible destination if that deal falls apart.

"We'll hang in there as long as it makes sense and as long as we can," Bettman said Saturday before the NHL's skills competition.

"But time is getting short. Make no mistake about that. This is not something that is of infinite duration. I have tried to be as careful as I could be not to raise expectations in Winnipeg.

"Everybody knows my view on that — if we have to move a club, it would be good to go back to a place that we were once in that has a different situation, vis-a-vis building and ownership and the like, but it's one of the reasons we get concerned.

"We think it's unfair when baseless stories come out suggesting things that aren't true to get people in Winnipeg all excited. If there's something to announce, I promise we'll announce it."

NHL wants league-owned team sold

The NHL has been running the Coyotes for 15 months after a U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled the league, and not Research in Motion Ltd. billionaire Jim Balsillie, could purchase the team. The NHL paid $140 million US and is reported to be selling it to Hulsizer for about $170 million US.

The last thing the league wants to do is run the franchise again next season so a deal will have to be in place by the time the 2011-12 schedule is being completed in the spring or early summer.

The Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix and became the Coyotes in 1996.

Bettman has not given Hulsizer a deadline to complete the sale.

"I know it would satisfy everybody's sense of finality to announce a drop-dead date," he said. "As long as the process is holding together in a time frame that we can deal with a schedule and the like, we're going to hang in there.

"If it becomes clear that the train is off the rails or that the train isn't getting to the station any time soon then we'll have to re-evaluate our position.

"But we're not going to, by a matter of a day or two, just simply make an artificial date."