Ellman meets deadline to buy Coyotes, Gretzky still undecided

Developer Steve Ellman made an initial $10 million payment to Phoenix Coyotes owner Richard Burke on Friday night to buy the NHL team and keep it in Arizona.

Principals in the sale pushed within four hours of their midnight deadline to line up investors and make the payment.

"They did get it done," Burke said. "Everything is fine. They deserve a lot of credit for getting a lot done in a short period of time."

Burke and Ellman are scheduled to finalize the deal June 30, but Burke said that is more of a formality.

"This is the big part here," Burke said.

Ellman would forfeit the $10 million if the deal didn't go through later.

The sticking point in negotiations was the participation of Wayne Gretzky, according to a published report.

The Arizona Republic reported on its Web site that Ellman flew to Los Angeles early Friday to make a last-minute pitch to Gretzky to sign on as a co-owner. It was still unclear Friday night whether Gretzky would be a part of the new ownership team.

By most accounts, the franchise would be finished in Arizona if Ellman is unable to complete the $87 million deal.

The NHL, which brokered the arrangement between Burke and Ellman in an attempt to anchor the Coyotes in Arizona, originally set a May 17 deadline. Burke extended the deadline to give Ellman time to put together his investment group and continue his pursuit of Gretzky.

But Gretzky, the most prolific scorer in NHL history, has nibbled at the bait since March without deciding whether to accept a 10 per cent share of the team and an executive position in exchange for lending his name to the franchise.

Gretzky told a national radio audience Thursday night in Denver that he was undecided about the proposition.

"I'm 50-50," Gretzky said on the Westwood One network. "I wake up and I think this is the right thing to do. Other moments I wake up and I say now isn't the right time."

Michael Barnett, Gretzky's agent, and Ellman spokesman Jeff Hecht did not immediately return calls to their offices, and Burke did not respond to messages left at his summer home in Minnesota and on his cell phone.

Gretzky would like to be reunited with Glen Sather, his former coach, in an owner-general manager arrangement. But TSN reported Friday that Sather, who resigned as Edmonton's president and GM on May 19, is close to agreeing to a contract with the New York Rangers.

At the same time, Sather told the Edmonton Journal he was unclear what was going on in Phoenix and hadn't spoken with Gretzky in several days.

Most observers believe Burke will sell the team to Microsoft founder Paul Allen, who wants to move the Coyotes to Portland to share the Rose Garden with the NBA's Trail Blazers, if Ellman's plans fall through.

Ellman was still trying to raise another $90 million to cover the purchase of the team and an estimated $20 million in operating losses over the next two seasons at the America West Arena, a venue in downtown Phoenix built for basketball.

Burke has claimed losses of $25 million over the Coyotes' first three seasons in the arena because 4,200 seats have restricted views of the ice and can't be sold for a normal price, and because his status as tenant restricts his ancillary revenue.

He said in mid-January that he would be willing to sell the team because of the slow pace of construction at Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale, where Ellman's company has contracted to build an 18,000-seat arena for the Coyotes.

Part of the $535 million mall redevelopment would be funded with the recapture of sales taxes generated on the site -- a mechanism approved by voters last November.

The $170 million arena is the centerpiece of the project, and Scottsdale redevelopment director Gary Roe said he was worried about the effect that any hitch in the sale would have on the rest of the project.

"I think the public vote was predicated on a hockey arena being built on the site," Roe said. "We'd need to take on a whole new approach and then wrestle with the financial implications of the approach. So it really is starting over."