The Phoenix Coyotes will open training camp Saturday with the issue of the team's new ownership still muddied and the future of head coach Wayne Gretzky unclear.
A two-day court-supervised auction for the NHL team ended Friday much the way it began, with Judge Redfield T. Baum seemingly no closer to making a decision as to whether the league or Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie is better equipped to run the team. He is expected to rule in a week or two.
The bigger buzz in Phoenix once court adjourned for the day was Gretzky. Will he be standing behind the Coyotes' bench for their season opener Oct. 3 in Los Angeles?
Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes said the plan is to have Gretzky return. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters he would assume as much. The rumour mill, according to Hockey Night in Canada Radio host Jeff Marek, is churning out the name of Coyotes associate coach and former NHL defenceman Ulf Samuelsson as a potential successor to Gretzky.
"Wayne's the best," Bettman told reporters outside the downtown Phoenix courthouse after taking the stand for 50 minutes on Friday. "I want what's best for Wayne."
Bettman claimed to not know the current status of Gretzky and said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney would make the ultimate decision.
NHL, Balsillie step up
The chess game between the NHL and Jim Balsillie continued Friday in the final hours of the two-day auction for the Phoenix Coyotes with each side sweetening the pot.
Balsillie, the co-CEO of Research In Motion Ltd., maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, offered the City of Glendale, Ariz., $50 million free of conditions to drop its objections to the transfer of the franchise to Hamilton.
The earlier offer, rejected by the city, could have reduced that $50 million through various factors.
Glendale attorney William Baldiga said Balsillie's new offer would be considered by the city council at its meeting Tuesday while adding Glendale remains "enthusiastically" behind the NHL bid.
"I think it's unambiguous that our offer is by far the best for creditors, it's the best for fans and is the best for the long-term viability of the franchise," said Balsillie, who also withdrew a Sept. 21 deadline he had set for his bid to be accepted.
According to the CBC's Tom Harrington, Balsillie will also pick up $11 million in debt, thus raising his offer to a reported $253.5 million.
While the NHL's offer remained at $140 million, the league said it would offer money to Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes.
Under the NHL's estimate, Moyes and Gretzky would have access to $14 million remaining in the estate. Moyes has a claim of about $100 million as a creditor, Gretzky $22.5 million.
The NHL's latest offer would reject the $8.5 million US contract of Gretzky to coach the team this season. But Bettman said he expected a new deal with Gretzky.
NHL attorney Greg Milmoe said Friday in court it is a sensitive topic and that negotiations with Gretzky are ongoing.
Phoenix hasn't made the playoffs in Gretzky's four years behind the bench, finishing 13th in the 15-team Western Conference last season. The Coyotes were in the post-season race until January and then endured a 4-16-1 skid as details of Moyes's finances were made public and the club fell into the conference basement.
Samuelsson, one of the hardest hitters the NHL has ever seen, is entering his fourth season with Phoenix after signing a contract extension last September.
NHL 'very comfortable'
Meanwhile both sides, the NHL and the Balsillie group — known as PSE Sports & Entertainment — remained confident in their offers once court adjourned on Friday.
"All I was looking for was a level playing field, a chance to really have a fair shot at buying a team. I think we got it here today," Balsillie said outside the courthouse.
Bettman said the league is "very comfortable" with what it presented to the court.
Baum, though, reiterated his statement from Thursday that the franchise could be dissolved and all assets sold off with the players shipped elsewhere in a dispersal draft.
In that case, according to attorneys for the NHL, the league would seek court-ordered control of the franchise and look for a buyer, preferably a group that would keep the team at Jobing.com Arena in suburban Glendale, Ariz.
Bettman testified Friday that the group known as Ice Edge Holdings would be interested in buying the team from the NHL and attempting to rework the arena lease with the City of Glendale.
Ice Edge had submitted a tentative $150 million offer for the Coyotes — pending a lease agreement with Glendale and with the proviso they play five games in Saskatoon — but the consortium pulled its bid on Wednesday.
While the NHL said it would immediately appeal an adverse ruling and even seek a stay of the sale, Balsillie was unclear of his direction should he lose.
Bettman under siege
When Bettman took the stand, Balsillie's lawyers attacked the timing of the NHL's bid, which was submitted on Aug. 25. The Balsillie camp suggested the league might have already decided to enter the bidding when the board of governors voted to keep Balsillie out.
In late July, the league's board of governors rejected Balsillie as a potential owner in a vote of 26-0. The Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins abstained, with the Coyotes not in the room.
The league has cited character issues as part of the rationale, with Balsillie taking deposits on tickets for a Hamilton-based team after exploring the possibility of buying the Nashville Predators.
The NHL waived its option to cross-examine Balsillie on Friday, but league lawyer Tony Clark took shots at the billionaire for his attempt to circumvent what the NHL considers proper procedure for buying and potentially relocating a franchise.
If Balsillie "wants to understand why he has been rebuffed in his sincere and indisputably passionate desire to be a team owner, what he needs to do is he needs to look in the mirror," Clark said. "He brought this about on himself by his refusal to abide by the rules."
It was also suggested by Clark that an apology from Balsillie to the league would be a good first step.
CBC's Tom Harrington said on Twitter that Clark's comments were a standout moment in the proceedings.
"Clark's evisceration of Balsillie was highlight or lowlight so far," Harrington tweeted from the courtroom. "I suspect JB would like to invite Clark to one of his pickup games."
Sides disagree on relocation fee
The contentious topic of relocation was up for discussion again Friday, with Balsillie's attorney Jeffrey Kessler presenting his case for why the judge should rule to relocate the team. He cited experts from both sides in saying that it was clear the team would be more successful in Hamilton.
Marek relayed Kessler's arguments on Twitter:
"Kessler: 'You have the key, your honour. The NHL will survive very well with a team in Hamilton,' " Marek tweeted from the courtroom.
Kessler also attempted to find out whether the NHL was still in contact with Ice Edge or Jerry Reinsdorf — who was part of a separate Coyotes bid before pulling out last month — but Baum rejected that line of questioning.
As on Thursday, a possible relocation fee was discussed, with the sides far apart on what would constitute a fair number. The NHL said the fee, which would be paid to the league, ought to be about $127 million, while the Balsillie camp argued for $10 million as the right figure but indicated it would accept $34 million.