Phoenix keeping Coyotes a priority: Bettman

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday in an exclusive interview on Hockey Night In Canada that keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix is a priority and Winnipeg just an option.

When it comes to the Coyotes, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says Winnipeg is an option but Phoenix is the priority.

Bettman spoke with Hockey Night in Canada's Scott Oake Tuesday night as the city council of Glendale, Ariz., voted in favour of guaranteeing the NHL up to $25 million US to keep the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena for the 2010-2011 season.

Bettman criticized the "hysteria" generated over reports that negotiations between Ice Edge Holdings — a group of Canadian and American business investors — over a potential arena lease deal had broken off.

The news sparked reports that a group led by Toronto-based billionaire David Thompson was in talks to bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg. The Coyotes, then the Jets, left Manitoba's largest city in 1996.

According media reports, the NHL has already created an alternative schedule that includes a team based in Winnipeg. However, Bettman rejected claims that an official offer has been made.

"What I will confirm is that over the years we've had an interest from Winnipeg, and I think that's great," said Bettman.

"But we're not going to address that interest by taking away a franchise from another club. If we can fix it in Phoenix, great — which is what we've been trying to do for the last year.

"If we can't fix it, then we'll look at our options," he said. "And obviously, Winnipeg is one of them."

Of the NHL's request that Glendale ensure the Coyotes' losses are covered if an owner is not found, Bettman said:

 "We're not asking them to fund the losses as an absolute. We're saying, if you don't do what you say you're going to do so these clubs can be sold, then we want the losses to be funded."

The Phoenix Business Journal says the Coyotes have lost as much as $50 million a year since moving to Arizona.

Pressed again on the issue of Winnipeg, Bettman was careful with his response. 

"If we have to move a franchise, if we have to move the Coyotes, obviously there is an equitable fairness point to be made over if the team has to go somewhere … certainly the place it came from should be given strong consideration."

However, he added: "I don't want to raise anybody's expectations, because the thing we've been consistent about … we try not to move franchises if we can avoid it."

Bettman pointed to the Chicago Blackhawks as an example for how the Phoenix Coyotes might be able to turn their fortunes around.

"The Chicago Blackhawks I think were second to last in the league in attendance, three, four years ago — losing tonnes and tonnes of money. And look at the franchise now," he said.