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Bettman claims Argo owners expressed interest in Coyotes

Toronto Argonaut owners Howard Sokolowski (left) and David Cynamon sit inside the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Saturday, November 3, 2007.

Philip Cheung/Philip Cheung

The co-owners of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts are declining to comment on their interest in buying the Phoenix Coyotes and keeping the club in Phoenix.

NHL Commission Gary Bettman revealed in a court filing Friday night that the league has received a "preliminary background application" from four potential buyers for the Coyotes including Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon, co-owners of the Argonauts. The other applications have come from Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls, as well as current Coyotes co-owner John Breslow and another unidentified Phoenix businessman.

Bettman said each group has "indicated an interest in operating the franchise in Phoenix."

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Bettman did not provide details of the proposals, citing confidentiality issues, and said the league is reviewing each application.

Reached on Saturday, Sokolowski referred questions to the NHL. Officials at the league were unavailable.

Sokolowski and Cynamon, both Toronto businessmen, bought the Argos out of bankruptcy protection in 2003. It is not clear when they approached the NHL about the Coyotes or how much they would be willing to pay for the team.

Their offer would compete with a current bid from Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie who wants to buy the club for $212.5-million (U.S.) and move it to Hamilton.

The NHL has opposed Balsillie's bid alleging it violates league rules governing relocation. An Arizona bankruptcy court judge will hold a hearing on the issue Tuesday.

Balsillie's lawyers told reporters today that the NHL's stance is "bogus" and violates anti-trust laws.

"It really appears to be out of spite, [it]appears to be an attempt to protect a monopoly on the part of the [Toronto]Maple Leafs," said Susan Freeman, a lawyer representing Balsillie. "And the rationale that they have given is not really legitimate, it's bogus."

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In a court filing, Balsillie said putting an NHL team in Hamilton would be a major contribution to Canada. He said he has been convinced for "several years that one of the most important contributions I can make to my country and my community is to bring a seventh NHL franchise to the greatest under-served hockey market in the world and locate it in Hamilton".

Balsillie added that he grew up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup. "While that dream of playing for the Stanley Cup will never come true, I am in the privileged position of having the resources to compete for one as a potential owner of an NHL franchise on behalf of Canadian hockey fans everywhere, and particularly those in southern Ontario… I care deeply about Canada and southern Ontario."

He also addressed criticism from the NHL that he has not abided by league rules and won't submit to league scrutiny. He insisted he abided by NHL rules and is now submitting to scrutiny to not only the league but also the court and Coyotes' creditors.

In league court filings, Bettman outlined how the NHL operates and said that "the fundamental essences of the NHL venture is who the members are and where the teams play."

Bettman also said that Balsilllie's $212.5-million offer is far less than a new franchise in southern Ontario would fetch.

"I believe that [Balsillie's]$212.5-million bid would pale in comparison to hypothetical rival bids that could be generated to relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton were the Board [of Governors]inclined to approve such a relocation," he said in court filings. Bettman also questioned the true value of Balsillie's bid saying that once various payments are excluded it is really worth $165-million.

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And, he said Balsillie's bid does not include "relocation fees" to the league, the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, that would be charged if the court approved moving the club.

He added that relocating the Coyotes "may make other cities skeptical (and potentially resistant) to hosting an NHL team in the future."

Bettman also questioned why the Coyotes have to leave, noting that they have a state of the art arena. "I believe that the Coyotes could succeed under new ownership in its current home market," he said.

Moyes and Balsillie have said the club has never made money and is not viable. But Bettman pointed to at least one potential offer for the team that were made just before Moyes put the Coyotes into Chapter 11 on May 5. He has not made the offer public.

Richard Rodier, a Toronto lawyer who has worked on the bid, said Balsillie feels "cautiously optimistic" about his chances at the hearing on Tuesday.

"I think the law is on our side and I think the facts are on our side," he told reporters.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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