Jim Balsillie is grateful to be involved in a September auction to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, but there are still hurdles ahead, a spokesman for the Canadian billionaire told CBC News on Thursday.
Arizona bankruptcy court Judge Redfield T. Baum decided Wednesday to allow "any and all bidders" to be involved in a court-ordered Sept. 10 auction for the bankrupt Coyotes, giving Balsillie some hope in his quest to own a National Hockey League club.
"I would call us cautiously optimistic or guardedly optimistic, because there have been a lot of twists and turns in this case," spokesman Bill Walker said. "Bankruptcy court is not a normal legal procedure by any means, and there are some issues that are still before the court."
Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research in Motion, entered an agreement in early May to make a bankruptcy purchase from Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes for $212.5 million US, with the intention of relocating the franchise to Hamilton.
Baum had previously seemed to extinguish the hopes of PSE Sports and Entertainment, Balsillie's group, with a June 15 ruling that he would only consider bids to keep the team in its current location.
But since that time, there has only been one formal offer.
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and Bulls, has fronted a $148-million bid. But representatives for the Coyotes' largest creditor, MSD Capital, have submitted to the court that the Reinsdorf bid would not fully satisfy their interest.
Another group fronted by a mix of Canadian and U.S. businessmen, Ice Edge Holdings, filed a letter of intent with the court but has not formally bid.
The NHL, which has been funding the club, wants the team to stay in Arizona, where it has lost tens of millions since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. The league has argued that a change in ownership and success on the ice could turn the franchise around.
The relocation issue may not even be the biggest hurdle Balsillie faces. Last week, not a single member of the NHL's board of governors approved him as a prospective owner in a meeting.
Walker indicated Balsillie's side is prepared for that rejection to be brought up in a hearing next week.
"There's still some issues to be debated between now and Sept. 10 in court. I think you'll see a lot of motions, a lot of depositions and a lot of hearing days, but we think we're headed in the right direction," Walker said.
"At the end of the day, if you look at the people who've either expressed interest in buying the Coyotes or have some form of conditional offer on the table, Jim Balsillie's is by far the best offer."
The NHL may have to justify its rejection of Balsillie to the court.
Citing a 1986 case involving the Los Angeles Raiders and the NFL, Baum said in his mid-June ruling that the NHL needed to show good faith in assessing Balsillie, who was twice previously greeted with initial enthusiasm as a prospective owner before negotiations to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators broke down.
"Significant to the court here regarding the objection to the transfer of ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes is the fact that in 2006 the NHL approved PSE to become a member," Baum wrote.
"Absent some showing by the NHL that there have been material changes in PSE's circumstances since 2006, it appears that the NHL can not object or withhold its consent to PSE becoming the controlling owner of the Phoenix Coyotes."
The league will argue circumstances have changed in the last three years. The NHL has already cited the substantial penalty Balsillie agreed to pay the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year in connection with allegations of back-dating of stock options at RIM.
The league also contends that Balsillie was duplicitous in the Predators case, not following the proper channels before courting Hamilton-area hockey fans.
While Balsillie was brought back into the game by Wednesday's ruling, the latest development could potentially offer the NHL another lifeline to thwart the Canadian hockey enthusiast, but one that wouldn't satisfy the city of Glendale, the suburb in which the Coyotes play.
"If I'm [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman, the first thing I'm doing is someone to come in with another bid to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes," Hockey Night in Radio host Jeff Marek said. "Not to a potential expansion market — which is Hamilton — but to a relocation market, namely, Kansas City or Las Vegas."
The two-year-old Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., has yet to find a big league occupant, while NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has previously stated that "many people," including film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, have expressed interest in owning a franchise in Las Vegas, where the league just held its awards ceremony.
The next court hearing in the Coyotes case is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Phoenix.