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McGuinty leaves door open for public money to fix up Hamilton arena for NHL

TORONTO - One week after rejecting the idea of using taxpayers' money to help bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty left the door open Wednesday to using public funds to help fix up the city's Copps Coliseum in hopes of attracting the Phoenix Coyotes.

RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie is looking for up to $120 million in federal and provincial funds to renovate the Hamilton arena if he is successful in his bid to move the bankrupt Coyotes from Arizona to southern Ontario.

McGuinty at first declined comment, saying his office had not been approached by Balsillie for money, but he then refused to dismiss the idea of using taxpayers' cash to upgrade Copps Coliseum.

"We'll just have to wait and see if we get a sensible proposal," McGuinty said.

The premier left the door wide open when asked directly if he was again ruling out public funds to attract an NHL franchise.

"I'm very much in favour of a new hockey team in Ontario," he said.

Deputy premier George Smitherman agreed the province is willing to consider using tax dollars to help Hamilton fix up Copps Coliseum, but only if Balsillie can convince an Arizona court to let him move the Coyotes.

"If we see success in terms of a franchise coming this way, if there are capital needs there, I think the premier's said we'll be open to the conversation, but it's a little bit premature," Smitherman said. "We're all very, very hopeful that would be a pressure that we would be under."

In a statement directed at Hamilton city council, Balsillie said the city is his first choice for locating a potential seventh NHL team in Canada, and added he's not considering "any other site locations at this time."

"Our commitment is to bring the NHL to Hamilton and to draw to Hamilton thousands of supportive southern Ontario hockey fans in the best unserved hockey market in the world," Balsillie said.

Those words came as Hamilton city council was to vote on a motion Wednesday night on whether to approve an option for a 20-year lease at Copps Coliseum.

The arena is in NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's riding, and she wants both senior levels of government to help Balsillie move the Coyotes to Hamilton.

"You know where my heart is on this issue, and I know the shape of our coliseum having been on city council in Hamilton," Horwath said.

"I don't think a blank cheque to a multimillion-dollar corporation is the best way to go, although ... I think government should be looking to partner in whatever way we can."

The Progressive Conservatives agreed southern Ontario could easily support another NHL franchise, but expressed caution at the idea of giving public money to Balsillie, the BlackBerry billionaire.

"I would personally - and I think our party would - have some reluctance in terms of making significant tax dollar commitments," said interim Opposition Leader Bob Runciman.

McGuinty noted the province already plans to spend infrastructure dollars in Hamilton to help support Ontario's bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games - funds that he suggested could be used to fix up Copps Coliseum.

"We're already talking about, through the Pan Am bid, making some investments in Hamilton which would have the benefit of supporting some enduring sports infrastructure, which we think is a good thing for the people of Hamilton and for Ontario taxpayers," McGuinty said.

The request for $120 million in public funds marks the first time Balsillie has publicly stated he's looking for government financing.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he doesn't think the request is "out of line," but added there would be no money from the city to upgrade the arena to accommodate the Coyotes.

Balsillie's attempt to purchase and move the franchise is being challenged by the NHL in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Phoenix.

Coyotes head coach and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky has thrown his support behind a US$130-million bid to buy the bankrupt team and keep it in Arizona - which is far less than Balsillie's US$212-million offer.


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