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Bettman extends olive branch in Coyotes debacle

Any objections Gary Bettman might have to prospective Phoenix Coyotes owner Jim Balsillie are not "personal," the NHL commissioner said on the weekend in his annual state of the union address.

Speaking to reporters prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday, Bettman painted a mostly rosy picture of NHL health, suggesting the league has held its own financially, despite the economic recession in North America, selling out more than 100 per cent of playoff games and getting season-ticket renewals in the 80-per-cent range, a strong number for the final week of May.

In a 15-minute preamble that was followed by a 19-minute question-and-answer session, Bettman also called for stricter testing for performance enhancing drugs, predicted the salary cap for the 2009-10 season would be either flat or down 5 per cent, and opened the door just a crack to the possibility of a second team in Toronto, saying it might in time be "something we have to take a look at."

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However, Bettman spent much of his time addressing the financial plight of the Phoenix Coyotes and the bankruptcy case in Phoenix that could decide the team's future at a June 9 hearing.

"The team was never in jeopardy," Bettman asserted. "It was literally 20 minutes away from being fixed in a way that we thought was going to work quite well - and it's my view that the Coyotes should not be in bankruptcy."

Bettman was referring to an offer that Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had cobbled together, with NHL assistance, to buy the Coyotes from owner Jerry Moyes. Instead, Moyes agreed to Balsillie's $212.5-million (U.S.) offer that is contingent upon the franchise shifting to Hamilton for the start of next season.

Bettman cited the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example of a team that was once in dire financial shape, but was eventually turned around in its own market.

"We didn't walk out on Pittsburgh," he said. "We fought to fix their problems - and we're fighting with everything that's going on for Phoenix, because of our covenant with the team and the fans there.

"The issue here is league rules and league processes and procedures, which is why it's pretty significant to note that the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have all appeared in bankruptcy court and made it clear that this is a profound issue for all sports leagues.

"This is not just an NHL issue. This is not a Canada versus U.S. issue. This is not a Phoenix versus Hamilton issue. And this is certainly not a personal issue. Any notion to the contrary is simply off the mark."

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Asked if he could ever imagine a scenario under which Balsillie, who has previously failed in attempts to buy the Penguins and Nashville Predators, is admitted to the NHL as an owner, Bettman answered it is not up to him to decide. Instead, it's a matter for the board of governors.

"The two most important issues for any sports league are: who's an owner, who's a partner in the league, and where franchises are located," Bettman said.

So on Balsillie's candidacy as an owner? Yes? No? Maybe?

"Again, I don't want to make this sound personal about Jim, because Jim is not the issue. At the end of the day, the owners - if they get to that point - are going to have to review him as a potential partner in the league. And whether or not they have questions about how he might be as a partner is something that they'll have to raise with him at the time."

A spokesman for Balsillie said yesterday the Research In Motion co-CEO will work within the rules to buy and move the franchise. "We look forward to submitting our application for relocation," Bill Walker said in an e-mail message.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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