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Daryl Katz absent as owners of Edmonton Oilers weigh his bid to buy team

EDMONTON - The fate of billionaire Daryl Katz's bid to buy the Edmonton Oilers is now in the hands of individual shareholders after a final meeting on the matter Monday brought not consensus, but renewed confusion.

"There is no (shareholder) vote planned," said Bill Butler, chairman of the 33-member Edmonton Investors Group. "Each shareholder will make his own decision."

Butler also said the board once again urged shareholders to reject Katz's offer, reportedly worth $188 million.

He said the board also plans to come back to shareholders with alternative ownership options, but would not give details.

"Those alternatives would be consideration of negotiations with regard to existing shareholders who possibly may want to continue on in the community ownership model," Butler told reporters after a three-and-a-half hour meeting at the downtown Petroleum Club.

Katz has given the investors group, also called EIG, until January 31 to accept his offer to buy all 7,492 shares at $20.56 a share. He needs 60 per cent of the shares for a controlling interest and early reports indicated he has more than that.

At that price, the EIG investors - who bought the NHL team a decade ago to save it from being relocated to Houston - would double their investment.

But his bid has divided the EIG among those who wish to sell, those who don't, and those who can't decide.

Earlier this month, Butler announced they were recommending shareholders reject the bid until Katz, among other promises, agreed to match in writing his public commitment to put $100 million toward a new rink to replace the Oilers' aging Rexall Place and also make a similar ironclad agreement to not relocate the team.

Katz has said he wrote to the board to satisfy those concerns, but Butler said Monday the answer didn't go far enough: "They were not addressed to our satisfaction."

Further muddying the Katz offer is the fact that current EIG members have the right of first refusal on any shares put up for sale.

The issue has become a sore point with the reclusive Katz, who has communicated to the public through news releases. In an e-mail earlier this month he said those who oppose his bid should "come clean" with their own ownership aspirations.

There are reports that Butler and a few other owners want to hang on and perhaps leverage the team's debt-free status and revenue streams to help finance a new downtown rink.

Butler would not comment on that Monday.

Katz was not at the meeting and his spokesman, Josh Pekarsky, declined in a phone interview to discuss specifics of the outcome except to say, "For us, the most important thing is that it's now up to the individual shareholders to decide what's in their best interests and the best interests of the community."

Butler said Katz had been invited to the meeting, but was asked to come alone without lawyers and accountants. Ultimately, he decided not to come, he said.

"I think he felt he could do better on his own, one on one."

It's the fourth time in less than a year that Katz, reported to be worth $2 billion, has tried to buy the franchise. The offers began at $145 million in March and have escalated ever since.

Along with the $100 million for the rink, Katz has also promised to spend to the cap on player salaries and build the team a new training facility at the University of Alberta.

The city is studying the feasibility of a downtown rink, but Mayor Stephen Mandel has made it clear he doesn't want taxpayers' dollars funding the project, which has been estimated at $500 million to $1 billion.

The 46-year-old Katz has received some high-profile public support in his bid from Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Glen Sather - icons of the Oilers' Stanley Cup glory days of the 1980s.

That support got a major boost in December when Cal Nichols, then chairman of the EIG and the highly popular man who led the fight to keep the team in town a decade ago, resigned his post and announced he was ready to sell.

The Oilers are now in a strong financial position. Rexall Place is routinely sold out and the Canadian dollar is strong compared with its U.S. counterpart. That relieves a lot of pressure on player salaries, which must be paid in U.S. funds.

Katz is a homegrown businessman who studied law at the University of Alberta before building his pharmacy empire. He has a $20-million custom-built home in the city's river valley.

The Katz Group owns the Rexall brand and other drugstore chains. In 2003, the Katz Group signed a 10-year deal for naming rights to the Edmonton rink at a cost believed to be $20 million.



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