Jim Neveau, Senior NHL Columnist
With several teams struggling financially, and rumors of franchises relocating popping up nearly every day, it isn’t surprising that even in one of the historically “dead” times for NHL news in the calendar, there are still stories emerging that could affect the future of teams in various markets.
As is usually the case, that relocation talk is emanating loudest from Glendale, Arizona, where the Phoenix Coyotes have been owned by the NHL for nearly three years. Various groups have emerged and receded in the effort to buy the team from the league and keep them in the Valley, with Matthew Hulsizer, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Ice Edge Holdings all having tried and failed to purchase the team.
To top off all of those failed bids, the city of Glendale has given the NHL $25 million in each of the last two seasons to subsidize losses that the league has incurred while attempting to sell the team, but even with all of that effort, the team is still under league control, and rumblings are suggesting that this will be the team’s final season in Arizona if a buyer cannot be found soon.
In that vein, commissioner Gary Bettman said in a fan forum at the All-Star Game in Ottawa that there is a third group that is currently attempting to buy the club. The other two groups, led by Reinsdorf (in what is his second or third attempt to buy the team, if rumors are to be believed) and former San Jose Sharks President and CEO Greg Jamison, have been negotiating with the league since the beginning of the season, but progress reports on either bid are unavailable. The third group has not been identified publicly, and even the ever-reliable source of information, the internet, hasn’t been able to crack the case (although some have speculated that it could be Jim Balsillie in a cartoon mustache).
The Arizona Republic has also named lobbyist John Kaites as another party that could be potentially interested in buying the team, but it is unclear as to whether or not he could be leading that third group that Bettman mentioned.
Despite there being several groups in the running by Bettman’s calculation, the city of Glendale and its leadership may be starting to grow impatient. Mayor Elaine Scruggs had some interesting things to say to the Arizona Republic about the NHL’s handling of the situation:
“We are not in control and quite honestly, I’m kind of tired of everybody pointing to us and making comments that the city of Glendale can’t get the job done. We have no control over it and I think probably the NHL is very happy that writers and reporters continue to point to the city of Glendale for not getting the job done because it takes the attention directly off them.”
The mayor also said that she feels the asking price of the NHL (which is about $36 million more than Forbes Magazine’s valuation of the team) is hindering the sale, saying that “it has kept other potential buyers out of the process of trying to purchase the team and I think it is definitely impacting the financial burden that’s being asked of the city of Glendale.”
Bettman addressed that concern as well in comments on the Coyotes’ situation, saying that price is not holding up the sale of the club.
If the sale isn’t finalized, the NHL does seem to be preparing for the next step, which would be to relocate the club. Renaud Lavoie from RDS in Canada had some interesting tweets on the situation today, one of which was a quote from deputy commissioner Bill Daly saying that “Quebec is a possibility” in terms of cities to move the team to. He also added that it “would not be alone.”
Renaud speculated that Seattle, Kansas City, and Las Vegas could be alternatives for the league to consider, and said that Seattle would be the only other city ready for the league to move the Coyotes to for next year.
The Glendale City Council will be meeting on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss the progress of sales talks for the Coyotes, but a public update is not expected in the meantime.
With the Coyotes’ plight, there is another team that may have received a positive endorsement for the league in terms of its own relocation prospects. The Columbus Blue Jackets, who have made the playoffs once in their history and are even now the recipients of fan protests about the future of the team, were announced as the host of the 2013 All-Star Game by Bettman on Saturday at the Board of Governor’s meetings. Their performance as host of the 2007 NHL Draft was an influence on the decision, and they had applied to host any year between 2013-2015 (despite there possibly not being a game in 2014 due to the Sochi Winter Olympics).
Jackets majority owner John P. McConnell had this to say in response to the announcement:
“The Blue Jackets are honored to host the 2013 All-Star celebration in Columbus as we believe our city offers a truly unique setting for this special event. As much as it is a showcase for the NHL’s best players, it is also a celebration of hockey fans and having it in Columbus is a testament to the fantastic support of our fans and the strength of Central Ohio as a hockey market.”
Whether it can be argued that Central Ohio is a strong hockey market can be debated (they are currently 27th in average attendance, ahead of the Stars, Islanders, and Coyotes), but the Game being awarded to Columbus not only serves as an indication that the league is confident in that team’s long-term prognosis, but also could serve as a clue to what they feel about the Coyotes’ situation.
The Coyotes are still technically owed a game, because they were supposed to host in 2006 but lost out because of the Torino Olympics. They were looked at as the favorite to host the 2011 incarnation of the game, but because of uncertainty in their ownership situation, the game was awarded to Carolina instead. This year’s game also would have gone to Phoenix had the bid of Hulsizer gone through, but once again, questions about ownership caused it to land in Ottawa. Now, with Columbus getting the 2013 game, the league once again is showing that even though their words are indicating they are optimistic about the team’s chances of staying in the desert, but their actions are suggesting otherwise.
At any rate, this story is going to continue to drag on, and even though the city of Glendale might be willing to cough up another $25 million to keep the team in Arizona next year too, the NHL might finally be willing to cleanse its hands of this situation, and you could be looking at the second relocation in two years over the summer if things don’t finally settle down there.