Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mano-a-Mano in Phoenix

Well it has finally come down to what the Phoenix ordeal is all about. All the pretenders have fallen aside and two of the largest egos in North America are ready to square off in one of the biggest public pissing matches in recent NHL history.

In a surprise announcement on Tuesday afternoon, Gary Bettman announced that Ice Edge Holdings indicated that they “do not currently intend to participate in the auction” for the Coyotes set for Thursday and Friday of this week.

That leaves only the NHL bid, masterminded by Gary Bettman and the PSE bid by Canadian billionaire Jim Ballsillie. This presents a classic showdown between a man who has power and another who has enough money to start his own league if he wanted to.

One of the biggest problems with the entire Phoenix Coyote ordeal over the last several months has been that it has been mired in a bankruptcy court that is not accustomed to such high profile public maneuvering.

The circus like side-show has taken the focus off what it is that bankruptcy courts do, which is basically to cut deals and spread money around to folks who have lost money to others who don't have enough money to pay back in full.

Bettman has had the upper hand in the negotiations to this point with his argument that the league has a right to control who can be an owner. Ballsillie’s latest offer of $50 million to a city that is in a tough financial position in exchange for blowing off the lease agreement may have tilted the table (or the ice as Barry Trotz likes to say).

Judge Baum has been begging for months for the NHL and Ballsillie to work something out. Time is Baum's friend with the impatient Jim Ballsillie. As the days tick by, Ballsillie keeps demanding new deadlines to close a deal. Baum recognizes that Ballsillie is frothing at the mouth and will wait until hell freezes over if that is what it takes to get an NHL team.

On the other side, Bettman has the support of 26 owners who don't want Ballsillie in their good old boys club. There's a couple of things at work here. First of all, Ballsillie has proven that he is not a team player and has flaunted rule breaking in three attempts to obtain and NHL franchise.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, it is the hip pocket issue for the owners. If they decided at some point in the future to add a second franchise in the Greater Toronto Area, an expansion fee could approach $400 million that would be divided amongst the owners.

If Ballsilie buys on the cheap in Phoenix and even pays up to $200 million in a relocation fee, the owners are potentially getting shorted another $200 million.

Going back to beginning of this whole mess, I have said that a compromise was in order. Back on June 2, in a Make It Seven telephone press conference, I posed a serious question to Ballsillie front man Bill Walker.

I asked, "As a compromise, if the NHL would agree, would Mr. Balsillie be willing to drop his bid for the Phoenix franchise in exchange for an open bid situation for an expansion franchise in Southern Ontario?" I'm still waiting on the answer.

Three months later, in the big picture of things, very little has changed. It still remains a pissing match between Bettman, who has a league (and a team), and Ballsillie who will do almost anything to get one, either the Coyotes or any other franchise that may show a sign of instability.

In my opinion, Judge Baum is now in a position to force the final two players to negotiate and come to some type of compromise that they both can live with. I still think that the question I posed in June is the closest that anyone has come to providing a logical solution to the two sides.

On the down side, the NHL would have to expand which is not good timing considering the current economy. However, Bettman could save face to a degree and not be bullied on the Phoenix franchise.

Ballsillie could apologize to the NHL owners and apply to be a bidder for the second team in the GTA. Since he has already proven that he would lay well in excess of his $242 million bid on the table (before the relocation fee) he would be considered the leader in the clubhouse in an open bid situation for an expansion team.

My suggestion is food for thought and is not perfect by any means. Compared to the situation in Phoenix that currently exists it is no worse and it does bring closure to a situation that will not get better through years of appeals as it winds its way to the US Supreme court as Gary Bettman has promised.

Right now, what everyone needs is for this situation to come to an end as soon a possible. Its almost time to drop the puck and this mess does not need to be stealing headlines from the on-ice action.

Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass

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