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Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Glendale vote = Yotes stability? Not exactly

By Scott Burnside

If anyone thinks the city of Glendale's decision to pour $25 million more down the sinkhole that is the Phoenix Coyotes represents anything approaching stability in the desert, he or she hasn't been following along.

Yes, the municipal masters of mayhem in Glendale exercised their only option short of holding up a white flag, voting by a 5-2 count Tuesday night to pay up to $25 million in operating losses to keep the Coyotes in Glendale through the 2011-12 season.

But that doesn't mean the pressure is off the city.

As it did a year ago when the city of Glendale agreed to this "insurance" arrangement the first time, the NHL will have the right to begin the relocation process as of Dec. 31 if a new owner is not in place, multiple sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Matthew Hulsizer
Prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer could walk away from the Phoenix Coyotes deal if the process is delayed for a longer period of time.

In the wake of the council's decision, the speculation over the Atlanta Thrashers now becoming the NHL team that relocates to Winnipeg in place of the Coyotes will reach a fever pitch in the coming days.

The Thrashers' sorry saga in Atlanta is well known and might well be staggering to a close. Ownership is a disaster, and apart from fighting each other in court for years, they also have been trying to unload the hockey team for much of the time they've owned it (this despite many public comments to the contrary).

With the Coyotes off the relocation market for at least the short term, it is believed discussions will begin in earnest to explore whether the Thrashers can be sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, the Winnipeg group led by Mark Chipman and mega-rich Canadian businessman David Thomson that has been waiting patiently for the Phoenix situation to sort itself out.

The True North group also owns the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose and must make a decision soon on whether it will have to make alternative arrangements for that franchise for next season.

If the NHL thought there was an ownership group that could be convinced to buy the Thrashers from their current owners, the Atlanta Spirit group, and keep the team in Atlanta, that would be the league's preference. But no such group has emerged up to this point. There have been "tire kickers" who have looked at the team's books, but nothing beyond cursory interest.

The fact that the team is in shambles, having never won a playoff game and qualifying for the postseason just once in its existence, suggests the Thrashers would be the easiest of the troubled NHL teams to move. As for any community uprising, the fan base is so disenfranchised, it's likely the team would leave Atlanta without a ripple on the surface of the local sporting community.

In that sense, the NHL would be able to reward Winnipeg fans with a franchise and leave a U.S. market that was doomed by the team's ineptitude without creating much in the way of negative press. It might not be a classic win-win situation (more like win-who-cares?), which, given the circumstances, might not be all bad for the NHL.

As for the Coyotes' still-cloudy future, there are some who believe the city will take advantage of the broader window granted by the council's decision to try to ferret out a new potential owner who will agree to a deal that costs the city less money and hit the restart button on the entire process.

Chicago Bulls/White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's name continues to surface in connection with the team's future, although it's difficult to believe he would be interested in a deal that is significantly different than the one on the table involving Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer. That deal calls for the city to sell more than $100 million in municipal bonds, the proceeds of which will go to Hulsizer's purchase of the team from the NHL. And, really, does the NHL want an owner who essentially has to be brought to the table kicking and screaming?

At least Hulsizer is a bona fide hockey guy who was prepared to begin the mighty task of rebuilding this franchise the moment the deal was done. Had the deal been done before the trade deadline, Hulsizer would have approved trades that added payroll, trades that couldn't be consummated with the league continuing to run the team, sources told ESPN.com.

As for Hulsizer's future in the proceedings, if it looks like the city of Glendale is going to keep him hanging while it tries to find an owner who will kick in more money, sources familiar with the deal insist Hulsizer will walk away. If he does, it might be the last, best chance to keep the team in Glendale, regardless of Tuesday's council vote.

The bond sale that is apparently crucial to the Hulsizer deal has been held up by the threat of a lawsuit from a public interest group, the Goldwater Institute.

How the city of Glendale hopes to avoid this threat moving forward is anyone's guess.