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If this is nearly the end, it sure looks an awful lot like the beginning.

The sad saga of the Phoenix Coyotes, after all, started not with Jim Balsillie's offer to buy the NHL franchise out of bankruptcy and move it to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton - now bogged down after a discouraging ruling from Judge Redfield T. Baum on Monday.

Rather, it began with a team that had hemorrhaged cash during every second of its existence in the desert, with an owner who had lost faith along with close to a $100-million (U.S.) over the past four seasons, without any concrete hope for salvation.

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Trace it back even further, if you like, to the NHL's entire U.S. Sunbelt strategy, but the most logical starting point is a year ago, when it became clear that Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes was at the end of his rope - pushed toward that point by an economy just beginning its freefall - and that someone else was going to have to start paying the team's bills.

Had NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and company found a patsy, the path would never have been opened for Balsillie and his legal team. Had anyone been willing to step up as the Phoenix owner during the months the commissioner was banging on every door and calling in every marker imaginable, there would have been no bankruptcy filing, no airing of the balance sheets, no need for the NHL to fight tooth and nail to retain control of the Coyotes' destiny.

The league has won a battle here - an expensive, embarrassing one. But claiming the spoils means returning to square one.

Still, the franchise is bankrupt. Still, the judge is going to be looking for an offer that satisfies the creditors. Still, there is nothing on the table that would keep the team in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale and greatly simplify Baum's task.

The list of those who believe it can succeed there must be a very short one indeed. Bettman says there are four "expressions of interest" in buying the team and keeping it in Arizona, but Baum didn't put much stock in that, and only one of those "expressions" - from Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf - seems even quasi-legitimate.

(Unless B.C. Lions owner David Braley is lurking in the wings as someone's secret financier.)

If he's really in at all, Reinsdorf must be in bargain-hunting mode. He could have bought the team any time, but chose to wait for the Coyotes' death throes before even beginning to kick the tires.

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Presumably he will put up cash only if it's one sweetheart of a deal, which would involve huge annual operating subsidies from the fine people of Glendale, surely a dicey political proposition in this world.

And that's where Balsillie still finds hope.

Maybe there's a winning legal strategy left. Maybe they can still try to pin the NHL into an antitrust corner over its relocation policy. Certainly there are lawyers willing to carry on that fight.

But that has to be a long shot. A far better bet would seem to involve simply sitting back and waiting.

The NHL couldn't solve the Coyotes' problems behind closed doors. It's a reasonable assumption that it might not be able to solve them now, under the gaze of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge who is charged with the task of protecting the creditors.

No acceptable Arizona solution means that eventually there will be an auction of the Coyotes as a portable asset. Others would enter into the bidding then - there's a brand-new building in Kansas City, there are at least faint hopes in Las Vegas and perhaps elsewhere, and there is a whole bunch of interest in a second NHL team in Toronto - but no other potential bidder has the combination of Balsillie's resources and an acceptable arena in the middle of the continent's best NHL market.

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In that scenario, if the NHL wouldn't approve the co-CEO of Research In Motion as an owner or approve Hamilton as a location, the league would have to justify that decision before the judge - which again raises the antitrust spectre.

So yes, this is where we came in.

The ball is back in Bettman's court. And the clock is ticking.

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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