Hockey Night in Canada

NHL won't bail on troubled Coyotes: Bettman

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who twice previously rejected Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's attempts to purchase a team and relocate it to southern Ontario, remains firm in his stance.

Commissioner addresses Canadian billionaire's attempt to buy team

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who twice previously rejected Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's attempts to purchase a team and relocate it to southern Ontario, remains firm in his stance.

Joining a panel of commissioners from Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association on Wednesday, Bettman briefly addressed Balsillie's latest offer to buy the financially strapped Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5 million US.

"Yes I do," Bettman said when he was asked by a CNBC reporter after the panel session if he envisioned the Coyotes beginning the 2009-10 season in Phoenix.

"We fix the problems. We don't run out on cities," Bettman told the other commissioners, in reference to past economic troubles facing NHL teams in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa.

"This is not about whether we want a franchise in southern Ontario. This is not about whether Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner and one the league would approve."

Bettman added the NHL's 30 team owners, not the league commissioner, vote on whether someone would be approved as an owner.

Balsillie, 48, made the offer to Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes, consenting to buy the team if he can move it, presumably to Hamilton or the Kitchener-Waterloo region, where he runs Research In Motion Ltd., maker of the popular BlackBerry mobile device.

The NHL reacted swiftly, responding to the petition of sale and relieving Moyes of his duties with the Coyotes. "We're just getting the [sale] papers and reviewing them and we'll probably be in court dealing with this whole issue," Bettman told CNBC.

True to Bettman's word, the NHL announced later Wednesday that it will indeed appear in federal bankruptcy court in Phoenix on Thursday.

"Obviously, if this is an attempt to circumvent league rules, then we're going to have to deal with it," said Bettman.

Asked how this could happen, Bettman said: "Somebody, and you'll have to ask the people who were involved in doing it, devised a strategy which somehow they think might entitle them to do something they might not otherwise be entitled to do."

Balsillie also agreed to provide $17 million in bridge financing to keep the Coyotes operating in advance of the proposed sale.

"I am excited to move closer to bringing an NHL franchise to what I believe is one of the best unserved hockey markets in the world — southern Ontario — a market with devoted hockey fans, a rich history, a growing and diversified economy and a population of more than seven million people," Balsillie said in a statement on Tuesday.

In 1996 under Bettman's watch, the Coyotes left Winnipeg, where they were known as the Jets.

Balsillie is travelling to Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday and was unavailable for further comment.

Bettman had been planning to meet with Moyes when news of the Coyotes formally filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection surfaced Tuesday. A hearing is said to be scheduled for Thursday.

A spokesman for the city of Glendale, Ariz., where the team's arena is located, told reporters last week that the NHL had assumed control of the Coyotes and that team ownership paid $351,000 in overdue rent on Feb. 25 — reportedly after receiving an unspecified loan from the league.

In May 2007, former Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold entered into a letter of agreement to sell the NHL franchise to Balsillie for $238 million, and Balsillie initiated a season-ticket drive in Hamilton before Leipold pulled out of the deal.

Three years earlier, Balsillie was thwarted in his attempts to buy the Penguins for $175 million when Bettman intervened and reportedly imposed restrictions that would keep the team in Pittsburgh.

Balsillie has also been rumoured to be in the market to purchase the Buffalo Sabres, but he would not comment on rumours he met with team owner Tom Golisano in December 2007.