GLENDALE, Ariz. - Would-be owner Matthew Hulsizer was on hand to watch the Phoenix Coyotes get swept in their first-round playoff series against Detroit, a game that could mark the end of the NHL in the desert if serious roadblocks to the sale aren't resolved.
Hulsizer declined a request for an interview but talked with fans outside Jobing.com Arena before Phoenix's 6-3 loss Wednesday night. The Chicago businessman's appearance, wearing a Coyotes jersey as he cheered on the team, in front of the sold-out crowd of 17,314 solidified earlier reports that he remains seriously interested in buying the team and keeping it in Arizona.
"I appreciate it as much as any fan does and as much as anybody out there," team captain Shane Doan said. "I appreciate him being here and showing his support."
However, a promised lawsuit by the conservative watchdog group Goldwater Institute has held up the city of Glendale's sale of bonds necessary to fill the requirements of the lease agreement reached with Hulsizer.
Doan acknowledged the difficulties of trying to compete on the ice since the Coyotes went into bankruptcy almost two years ago, setting in motion a chain of events that created the current murky situation.
"I don't care what anybody says, it's a strain when you deal with your family and you deal with people outside of it," he said. "And if you're going to lose a series 4-0, it's a perfect example that we're answering questions about what's going to happen next. You don't even get to think about the year. You have to think about what's going on next. That's the part that bugs you because you've only got so many years to play in this league and you want to enjoy them."
Coach Dave Tippett praised his players for their efforts in making the playoffs in both seasons of uncertainty.
"We have scratched and clawed and I give our group a ton of credit because they dealt with it for two years," he said.
But, Tippett said, it can't go on.
"It is a competitive disadvantage," he said. "My focus is how we can get better and how we can put the best players on the ice to succeed and the way to do that is stable ownership. You can't win in this league without it. There needs to be a solution here."
The post-game scene, with the emotional players acknowledging the cheering crowd, reminded Doan of the scene in Winnipeg in 1996, the last game before the Jets moved to Arizona.
"Nobody likes to leave their home—ever," he said. "Fifteen years ago it was an emotional time to leave. But it's not like it has any bearing on what any of us think. When you're told to leave your home it's always difficult but at the same time I have a ton of faith that it will get done here."
The Coyotes' Adrian Aucoin said the fans have gotten a bad rap.
"I've played in a lot of cities and I know we haven't filled the building at nights but the fans that have come have been amazing," he said. "... These last two games, I'll tell you, have been two of the most amazing playoff atmosphere games I've played in. I want to thank all the fans for that because my heart was pounding when we came out for both games. It was very impressive."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told Rogers Sportsnet in Toronto that the league is "still focused on trying to make it work in Phoenix."
He said the league could not wait forever on the deal closing but again denied reports that a move of the franchise to Winnipeg is imminent once the Coyotes' season is over.
"Do we have an infinite amount of time? The answer is obviously not," Bettman said. "But we haven't been holding an announcement waiting to see when the Coyotes are done playing, I can assure you of that."
The Goldwater Institute took the highly unusual step of writing traders to warn against buying the Glendale bonds because of the promised lawsuit, which will argue that the city's deal with Hulsizer violates the state's anti-subsidy law.
Hulsizer has been in regular contact with Goldwater Institute officials to try to resolve the situation. Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs and other city officials were to meet with Goldwater representatives on Thursday. The Goldwater Institute had insisted such a meeting be open to the public but agreed to a private session with the unedited transcript to be released afterward.
"We are pleased to be meeting with Glendale in this open manner and look forward to sharing the results of the meeting with you," Starlee Rhoades, the institute's vice-president for external affairs, said in a statement released to reporters.
Season-ticket holder and self-proclaimed "ex-Canadian" Irwin Badowich was among the multitude of fans in "whiteout" T-shirts cheering on the Coyotes.
"I'm very hopeful it can be resolved," he said. "I wish the Goldwater Institute would have stayed out of it. We need hockey here."
He said he believes the Goldwater threat is "mostly a bluff."
The institute has resisted pressure from Republican Sen. John McCain, among others, to back off of its lawsuit vow.
Meanwhile, the market has driven up the price of the US$100 million in bonds the city must sell to complete the transaction. The funds would go to Hulsizer in the lease agreement, then be repaid through parking fees, a key aspect that the Goldwater Institute has opposed.
Last month, Hulsizer said he would guarantee $75 million of the city's contribution, but that did not resolve the Goldwater Institute's concerns.
The franchise never has made a profit since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. The NHL bought the franchise in U.S. Bankruptcy Court nearly two years ago, saying it wanted to find a buyer to keep the team in Arizona.
In his Toronto interview, Bettman wouldn't comment on reports that he has had talks with Mark Chipman, who is heading the drive to bring the team back to Winnipeg.
However, Bettman said that if had to make a deal to move the team "my guess is I probably could arrange it."