NEW YORK - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is skeptical of Jim Balsillie's offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes, saying he isn't sure the BlackBerry boss could gain approval of league owners.
The co-CEO of Research In Motion announced a US$212.5-million offer to buy the financially ailing Coyotes on Tuesday night. The deal is conditional on moving the club to southern Ontario.
"I don't know whether or not he could get approved," Bettman said Wednesday during a discussion of commissioners from the four major U.S. pro sports leagues, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. "That's, as I said, something I don't get a vote on. If in fact it becomes an issue for board consideration, the board of governors of the league will make that decision."
The NHL has stripped current Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes of the authority to run the club after Moyes announced the team had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The filing included the proposed sale of the franchise to PSE Sports & Entertainment, LP.
Bettman said the filing occurred "not because creditors were lurking and seeking redress for not being paid, but because there was an offer apparently from Mr. Balsillie to buy the franchise and move it."
He added that the issue will be the "subject of litigation."
"This is not about whether or not we want a franchise in southern Ontario. This is not about whether or not Mr. Balsillie would make a suitable owner that the owners would approve. This is about the league's rules and the enforceability of our rules," Bettman said.
"Whether or not Mr. Moyes even had the authority to file the bankruptcy petition is something we're going to get into. This is more about the tactic and I think a challenge to league rules than it is about economic condition of the club, which we believe can with new ownership and with the accommodations the city of Glendale is prepared to make, we think can succeed."
Bettman, who said he'd been on his way to Phoenix on Tuesday to meet with Moyes about offers for the team when he heard about the bankruptcy filing, sounded as if the league wouldn't approve a move of the Coyotes right now.
"We generally try to avoid relocating franchises unless you absolutely have to," he said. "We think when a franchise is in trouble, you try and fix the problems. That's what we did in Pittsburgh and Ottawa and Buffalo prior to our work stoppage. That's what we did when the perception was that five out of the six Canadian franchises around the turn of the century were in trouble. We fixed the problems. We don't run out on cities."
NHL Players' Association head Paul Kelly said the Coyotes situation must be resolved quickly for the sake of the league, the 2009-10 schedule and players who need to organize their lives.
"You can't let the thing linger I would say much past the end of the month of June," Kelly told The Canadian Press at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Switzerland. "I'm hopeful the sides can either come together or the court will make the time to resolve these issues."
Kelly, who in the past has said the NHL needs to consider putting another NHL team in southern Ontario, said the union would support a stable and profitable situation in Phoenix.
"If that can't happen, I've said it many times that I think the league should seriously look at putting another team in southern Ontario - either in Toronto or in the Hamilton/Kitchener area," he said.
"I think there's incredible enthusiasm for hockey in southern Ontario, certainly they could support a second team. At this point, it's out of our hands but we will be watching it with real closeness and we'll be keeping our players advised throughout the process."
Kelly expressed little surprise that Balisille's bid wasn't being welcomed by Bettman with open arms.
"This is his third attempt at buying a franchise and moving them," said Kelly. "I haven't been involved in any of his prior efforts but I'm certainly well aware that (the NHL) doesn't like to be strong-armed. And the league believes that it has a number of legal and technical manoeuvres that it can take to block anybody that tries to forcibly enter the ownership group.
"We want what's best for hockey, we want what's best for the players and the game. If that turns out to be Phoenix, then great, we'll support it. If it turns out that bringing in a new owner and moving that franchise to southern Ontario, where it will be extremely well-received, if that's what ultimately evolves than that would be great for our players."
- With files from The Canadian Press