NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has allegedly said he would rather see the Phoenix Coyotes move to Winnipeg than Hamilton, according to documents filed in the team's bankruptcy court case.
Earl Scudder, a lawyer who works for Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes, filed an affidavit Friday that said Bettman told him this last month when told there was a buyer interested in buying the team and moving it to southern Ontario.
According to The Canadian Press news agency, Bettman allegedly told Scudder that Hamilton's Copps Coliseum isn't an ideal destination because it's over 30 years old, saying "if the team did return to Canada, it would be Winnipeg," according to the filed document.
The statement went on to say the only way Bettman would allow a second NHL team in southern Ontario was through expansion.
Winnipeg lost its NHL club in 1996 when the Jets moved to Phoenix.
Money key issue, mayor says
Mayor Sam Katz told CBCSports.ca on Saturday he isn't surprised to learn of Bettman's reported interest, and he thinks a club would do well in southern Manitoba.
"But the reality is, an individual or a group of individuals would still have to come up with a significant amount of money — in other words, they have to be well-heeled, with deep pockets — and then work out some kind of relationship with the owners of the MTS Centre."
That would be Mark Chipman and his company, owner of the 15,500-seat arena now home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Katz says there's a certain frustration to having your city's name come up as a possible NHL location time and again.
"It's heartbreaking," he says. "Every time a story breaks and there's an opportunity to talk about the subject ... because every time you talk about it people get excited, people get hope and they get all pumped up about having the NHL back in the city."
And there isn't a deep-pocketed man like billionaire Jim Balsillie willing to put funds into a plan for Winnipeg.
"What we do have is that it appears we are the preferred city," Katz said. "And I understand the politics of what is going on."
NHL accommodating the Leafs?
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Among the items in Jim Balsillie's court filings Friday was the suggestion that the NHL is preventing a move to Hamilton in part because of pressure from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who allegedly want to keep the hockey-rich market solely in their possession.
Though the NHL rules on territorial rights remain murky at best, Hamilton's Copps Coliseum is technically outside the 80-km boundary imposed by the league.
But any franchise that moves into southern Ontario will almost certainly cut into the Leafs' profits.
The organization is staying mum on the subject.
When CBCSports.ca contacted the team for a response to Balsillie's comments and what the organization thought its territorial rights were, a Leafs representative said the club had no comment on the matter for now.
The news came one day after Balsillie said he is willing to keep the Coyotes in Arizona for an extra season as long as his eventual relocation plans are approved, according to other documents filed Friday by Balsillie's group.
But that was one item in a long list of complaints on how the league is handling the matter.
"We are willing to pay the full purchase price," the filing said. "And we are willing to have the team remain in Glendale [just west of Phoenix] for a further year if the NHL is prepared to fund the losses for the year and respect the decision of this court by forgoing any rights of appeal as long as we know we will be permitted to move the team to Hamilton, Ont., for the following season."
The same documents, filed by Balsillie-owned PSE Sports & Entertainment, fired back at the NHL in response to the league's attacks on the Canadian billionaire during his attempt to buy the bankrupt franchise, saying any NHL decision to block or stall Balsillie's plans is not based on sound business practices.
"If the decision is to deny the relocation application or stall the consideration of it, we believe that would likely be on account of an effort to block competition in the Toronto area or a dislike of Mr. Balsillie and would be unreasonable, illegal and an abuse of discretion, in violation of antitrust laws," the filing said.
The documents argued that moving the team to southern Ontario is the best move to make from a business standpoint, because the franchise would do better in a hockey-mad market like Hamilton.
"Children in Canada often strap on hockey skates before they start school and grow up in an atmosphere of intense hockey enthusiasm," the filing said.
"Children in Arizona do not, and most never, step on an ice rink. PSE believes that the Coyotes simply do not have a sufficiently large base of paying fans in the Glendale area to ever generate enough money to repay the Coyotes' existing debts, let alone turn a profit, and certainly do not have sufficient support to justify a purchase price of $212.5 million if forced to remain in Glendale."
Fans hold rally in heat
A rally to help keep the Coyotes in Phoenix was held by local fans Saturday morning at a sports bar near Glendale called Native New Yorker. It drew about 100 people, according to a Phoenix CBS television station contacted by CBCSports.ca.
Other reports had between 200 and 500 people showing up in the hot weather, with temperatures over 35 C on Saturday.
The filing also questioned the motives of the NHL during the failed Balsillie attempt to buy the Nashville Predators nearly two years ago.
"Instead of selling the Nashville Predators to [Balsillie], the team was sold to William (Boots) Del Biaggio and other local owners at a considerably lower price," the filing said.
The NHL and Moyes have been locked in a struggle for control of the team since Moyes filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month. The league alleges that it has been in control of the team since November, after lending money to the franchise so it could cover its costs.
Soon after the bankruptcy filing, Balsillie, co-CEO of Waterloo-based BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., offered $212.5 million US for the Coyotes, provided that he could move the team to southern Ontario.
Judge Redfield Baum is presiding over the case in U.S. bankruptcy court and is expected to render a decision Tuesday on who owns the Coyotes.