PALM BEACH, Fla. - The NHL's long wait for a new owner in Phoenix appears to have paid off.
Matthew Hulsizer met with the executive committee of the league's board of governors on Monday and earned the approval of the 10 men in the room. The Chicago businessman says his bid to buy the Coyotes remains on track and he's optimistic about the team's future.
"It was a very good interview," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "I thought Matt did a great job. The executive committee is unanimous in their support of his application for ownership."
The NHL has been running the Coyotes for 15 months after a U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled the league, and not BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, could purchase the team. The NHL paid US$140 million and is reported to be selling it to Hulsizer for about $170 million.
The final major hurdle for the sale is a Dec. 14 council meeting in Glendale, Ariz., where a new lease agreement on the team's arena will be put to a vote.
Phoenix is currently last in the league in average attendance and has lost money every year since moving to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996. Hulsizer seems to know exactly what he's getting in to—"this is not a home run investment for us"—but remains confident he can turn things around in Arizona.
"It's been my experience that if you make a great product, hockey teams have a lot of value," he said. "Those things tend to grow over time. I tend to be a longer-term investor. As I look out 25 years, I think people will look back and say 'Hey, that might have looked smart.'
"Right now, it's not going to look smart for a long time though."
The NHL can only hope there are more people like him out there. With the league's owners gathering under one roof, it's hard to ignore the number of them that are said to be shopping their franchises.
Even still, the overall business continues to grow as governors were told Monday that the US$59.4-million salary is projected to rise by $3 million next season. It has jumped every season since coming into existence at the end of the lockout in 2005.
"There were very preliminary projections ... league revenue forecast information," said Daly. "You build in a whole bunch of assumptions and variables and you try to give them a sense of where that might be."
Among the other moves made on the opening day of meetings was an approval of the sale of Harley Hotchkiss's 22 per cent interest in the Calgary Flames to the team's other owners. Hotchkiss is a former chairman of the board of governors who was among the original group that brought the Flames north from Atlanta three decades ago.
The Thrashers were later created as an expansion team in 1999 and are among the franchises currently in search of a new owner. Daly clarified remarks he made over the weekend on a Winnipeg radio station about the fact the team could be moved.
"I don't think there's anything we've ever said that would be inconsistent with the concept of trying to be successful in the markets we're in over an extended period of time, giving them every opportunity to be successful," Daly said.
In the event they aren't successful, "for whatever reason obviously you look at other alternatives and relocation is another alternative. I didn't mean to suggest anything was imminent in Atlanta. I obviously think that over time you've got to look at the viability of the marketplace."
Many questioned the viability of Phoenix as an NHL market during the prolonged bankruptcy case with Balsillie, who wanted to move the team to Hamilton, and in the time since the league has been in charge. Ultimately, they found someone who shares the vision.
That is bad news for hockey fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City because the league is prepared to start looking at relocation if Dec. 31 passes without a new owner in Phoenix.
The main sticking point with the Coyotes sale is securing a move favourable arena lease with Glendale.
"We've negotiated most of the lease and I think we're just waiting to sort of finalize that," said Hulsizer. "And then it will be released to the public shortly."
Hulsizer, 40, played NCAA Division III hockey at Amherst College and earned his money as a hedge fund manager. He plans to bring on minority partners and says they will "likely" include members of the Ice Edge group, which previously failed to purchase the team.
His personal role with the Coyotes will be limited to signing cheques, leaving the day-to-day operation of the team to a president he plans to hire.
"It will be somebody with experience and it'll be somebody who you guys would all look at and say 'Yeah, I get it, this is a person who is an 'A' player,"' said Hulsizer. "This is what we're going to try to do—we're going to hire 'A' quality people across the organization, we're going to try to put a great product on the ice and hopefully earn back the fans."
He is adamant he can turn the sagging franchise into a money-making outfit over time.
"I think we're going to have to earn the fans back," said Hulsizer. "I don't think it's something people are going to immediately give us credit and say, 'Oh, there's a new owner and now (we'll show interest).' I'd love for that to be the case, but I don't think that's going to be the case.
"I think we're going to have to earn back their faith and I think we're going to have to show that by putting out a great product."
Hulsizer's meeting with the executive committee lasted less than an hour. More than anything, it was an opportunity to introduce himself to key members of the league.
"I think they wanted to know what kind of a guy I was," said Hulsizer. "I'm a hockey fan and a hockey coach and a hockey player. And I'd love to join the club."