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Friday, January 22, 2010
Bettman won't set timetable

By Scott Burnside

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The prospective owners of the Phoenix Coyotes are close to negotiating new terms on a lease with the City of Glendale and say they are optimistic they will be formally approved as owners by the start of the NHL playoffs.

Keith McCullough, chairman of Ice Edge Holdings, the group that signed a letter of intent to buy the team from the National Hockey League last month, told in an interview that "there are a couple of very small issues to iron out with the city," but they don't foresee any problems in making a deal that would pave the way for them to take control of the troubled franchise in the desert.

Top executives with the Ice Edge group, including McCullough and CEO Anthony LeBlanc, met with Glendale officials several times over the past week in what were described as positive meetings.

"We have no question that we're going to close this deal," LeBlanc told "All the major issues [with the City of Glendale] have been worked out."

Officials from the group also met with NHL leaders last week in New York to discuss issues surrounding the sale of the team from the league to Ice Edge.

LeBlanc, who is in the process of moving to the Phoenix area from his home in Ottawa, estimated issues over how to improve revenue streams for both the franchise and Glendale will be ironed out in the next month.

"Maybe in the next couple of weeks," he said.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said there have been no surprises as they've moved through the process of due diligence in being able to assure the board of governors this is the right move for the league. The commissioner was positive about the group's decision to commit long-term to the team in the Phoenix area.

"I think that's what the market needs," Bettman said.

Still, he would not put a timetable on when approval of the sale might be given by the league. "There's still much work to be done," he said.

Ice Edge has not asked for an out clause as part of their bid to buy the team and have committed to staying in Phoenix for the remaining 26 years on the current lease with the City of Glendale. The city put $180 million into the building of Arena, and the length of the deal was considered a deal-breaker for the city.

The sooner the deal gets done, the sooner the real work of rebuilding the franchise can be done. The team, which has the lowest average attendance in the NHL, has eight players who could become unrestricted free agents on July 1, and GM Don Maloney would like to begin negotiating with some of them as soon as possible. With the NHL controlling the team after it went into bankruptcy last spring, any significant payroll/personnel moves have had to be approved by the league. That has made signing players to long-term deals difficult.

But there are some players, like defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who are important to the team's future, and Maloney needs the freedom and financial backing to begin those negotiations.

While the Coyotes have the lowest payroll in the NHL, LeBlanc promised the team will have more money to work with moving forward. Just how much is unclear (payroll won't be increasing by $20 million), but it will grow in the millions of dollars, LeBlanc said.

The ownership group is also moving forward with a plan to play up to five games in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to help pump revenue into the team. This element of the ownership bid has been greeted with some skepticism around the NHL.

"We humbly feel this is a win-win [situation], however we realize we may have to do a better job explaining the benefits on both sides," LeBlanc told "Saskatchewan is known to have some of Canada's greatest sports fans. We feel it is a great way to extend preseason and regular-season NHL hockey to a tremendous hockey market that would otherwise not have the opportunity to enjoy NHL games."

The plan, like the entire ownership bid, would require approval of the NHL's board of governors.

The owners would also like to move the team's AHL affiliate to Thunder Bay, Ontario, hometown of both McCullough and LeBlanc.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for