NHL pushes Balsillie's Coyotes bid closer to the cliff

By stepping in with its own offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy, the NHL may have made its strongest move yet toward keeping Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie from becoming the team's owner.

You remember Wile E. Coyote, right? The always emaciated, terminally bumbling, lovably pathetic creature that entertained or annoyed millions of people for years in the vain pursuit of that "beeping" Roadrunner.

It seems ironic that the NHL's Coyotes should become the hunted, and the battle between BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie and league commissioner Gary Bettman would evolve into a kind of courtroom cartoon … with legal anvils landing on various heads, charges and counter-charges exploding like giant firecrackers. It's as if ACME was the acronym of a law firm.

Just as we could always predict the outcome of those animated duels in the desert, it is the very unpredictability of the outcome in court that seems to underpin the league's latest manoeuvre. The approximate $140-million US offer to buy the club from Jerry Moyes then sell to an acceptable third party down the road may to come down to the fact that bankruptcy court judge Redfield T. Baum is in charge of this process, not Bettman.

By purchasing the troubled franchise, the league takes it out of bankruptcy and takes away the risk that Balsillie's bid might somehow win out in an auction on Sept. 10.

If the offer is comparable to the one withdrawn on Tuesday by U.S. businessman Jerry Reinsdorf in the way it meets the needs of the City of Glendale, Ariz., and various creditors, it could allay the judge’s concerns about moving a pro sports franchise in unprecedented fashion. In other words, a cleaner option than transferring the team to Hamilton, which is what Balsillie has proposed to do.

But the bid also indicates some worry in the NHL's Manhattan office that the judge will keep the Canadian entrepreneur in the game after a hearing next week on that very question.

Man on white horse rides off

What might make matters worse for the league in the eyes of Baum is the withdrawal of the group headed by Reinsdorf. The owner of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and MLB’s Chicago White Sox was the investor touted by Bettman as the proverbial "man on the white horse," the renowned sports mogul who would save hockey in the Sun Belt.

Instead, he became fed up with Moyes — "the unwilling seller" as Reinsdorf’s people have dubbed him — and frustrated with the inability to work out a new lease agreement with Glendale, which owns the Coyotes' arena, Reinsdorf also indicated he'd become disenchanted by the circus -like atmosphere surrounding these proceedings, now almost four months old.

The idea of a league owning one of its franchises is not new or unusual. Major League Baseball took over the Montreal Expos in 2002 and ran the club for three years before selling it to Washington, D.C., interests in 2005 and letting the team move to the U.S. capital. The NHL says it’s been paying the Coyotes' bills for months anyway and might have a relocation strategy like that in mind for Phoenix’s forlorn hockey team.

There seems little doubt however that Waterloo’s most prominent citizen won’t ever be part of it. Balsillie’s been unanimously rejected because every owner agreed he was allegedly made of the wrong stuff.

After being sideswiped by the tactics of Balsillie's legal team, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told Canadians the game of hockey would be better off without Balsillie and his billions. Talk about a plan backfiring.

Judge Baum is Balsillie's — and Hamilton’s — last best hope, but the NHL may have just pushed them off the cliff.