x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Coyotes must stay put and move on

The franchise is up for auction early next month, and anyone can bid, as long if you have a few hundred million dollars and an fondness for frustration.

For sale: one professional ice hockey team, to the highest bidder (some conditions may apply). In effect, that is the status of the Phoenix Coyotes, the NHL team that reportedly lost nearly US$70 million (Dh256m) last season - but can be yours. If the price is right. The franchise is up for auction early next month, and anyone can bid, as long if you have a few hundred million dollars and an fondness for frustration - and as long as you're not Jim Balsillie. The Blackberry billionaire and Southern Ontario resident has offered $212m for the Coyotes - and the right to relocate to Hamilton, or Kitchener- Waterloo, Ontario, or Toronto, or? well, you get the idea.

Pretty much anywhere as long as it is in Ontario and not in Arizona. Which makes financial sense, considering the team has lost in excess of $20m per season since the 2004-05 lockout (including $67m last year). However, the NHL does not want Phoenix to move to Ontario because the league would lose out on the hefty expansion fee it could charge a start-up team in that region. So, auction bids will only be accepted from parties which state their intention to keep the team in Phoenix. If no one steps up - unlikely, but possible - then there'll be another auction with bids accepted from any and all Balsillie types; that is, people who want to take the team out of town.

At the moment, the team is owned by a trucking magnate, Jerry Moyes, who claims he never really wanted control in the first place, but bought in on the cheap off of previous owner Steve Ellman, the man who cold-called Wayne Gretzky and convinced him bring his sterling reputation behind the bench in Phoenix. For all of the assists Gretzky piled up during his career, this is one instance where he really should have known to pass. Instead, he's battling the City of Glendale in court over how much money is owed to him by the team.

Anyhow, back to Moyes. Calling him the "owner" is not quite correct. If you ask the NHL, they would probably tell you it is not correct. That's because back in February, when the NHL stepped in financially and helped the Coyotes pay their bills, Moyes and the league signed an agreement that said Moyes would not do anything significant - like try to sell the team or enter into bankruptcy - without getting the NHL's approval. It appears he did both.

Why? Moyes' trucking interests were hit hard by the recession; no one was buying tickets to watch the Coyotes; and, the team has an awful arena deal (for example, when fans use the arena parking lots, it costs the Coyotes money instead of being a cash generator.) So, Moyes first tried to sell the team to Balsillie, then - when the NHL vetoed the deal - he filed for bankruptcy protection. The NHL has also accused Moyes of trying to derail the deal the league wants - which would see the Coyotes sold to Chicago sports giant Jerry Reinsdorf - while Moyes, of course, claims he's well within his rights.

The chances are Reinsdorf's bid will be accepted - with a provision, perhaps, that allows him to relocate the team in a few years, if attendance and the finances have not improved. There are also other parties sniffing around the team; an indication that, most likely, the Coyotes will have a Phoenix-friendly owner. But it could all fall apart at any time. It already has, several times, so it would be a huge surprise if the contentious Coyotes team transaction suddenly turns smooth. At the end of next month, at least, we should know: a) who owns the Coyotes; and, b) where they'll be playing for the future.

And those are two things more than we know right now. smccaig@thenational.ae