Spector: Where do Coyotes go from here?

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At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector's NHL Blog on Yardbarker.com for NHL rumors and analysis.

The six-month battle between the National Hockey League and Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie over the ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes finally came to an end last week when bankruptcy court judge Redfield T. Baum rejected the bids of both sides. Balsillie's bid, which at $242.5 million was considerably more than the league's of $140 million, was rejected because it came with the condition he be allowed to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. That would've set a precedent as it would've taken away the NHL's control over the location of its franchise. Even though Baum rejected the NHL's bid because it would've given the league control over which creditors it would pay, the rejection of Balsillie's bid means he's no longer a threat to buy and move the Coyotes, making this a victory for league commissioner Gary Bettman.
David Shoalts of the Toronto Globe & Mail noted Baum ruled he'd accept the NHL's bid provided it was re-written to include payments to former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes and former head coach Wayne Gretzky, who were among the team's creditors. The commissioner's critics claim he handled this situation poorly, resulting in embarrassing headlines and highlighting the problems the league faces with struggling franchises in the U.S. Sun Belt. But according to Shoalts, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly earned not only the praise of NHL team owners, but also from other North American professional leagues who might have faced challenges to their own franchise location rules had the NHL's efforts to thwart Balsillie failed. For those suggesting Bettman could be fired over his handling of the bidding war for the Coyotes, don't hold your breath. It's not the first time it's been suggested Bettman was in jeopardy of losing his job, yet each time he's emerged from crises stronger and more entrenched than ever. The NHL retains control of the Coyotes, but it remains to be seen what the future holds for a troubled franchise which reportedly lost over $300 million in this decade. It's believed Bettman and Co. will mount an aggressive search for investors willing to keep the franchise in Phoenix, but that's not an easy sell. The Coyotes have been hemorrhaging money for years, been poorly managed and coached for most of this decade, attendance is in decline and they're saddled with an expensive 30-year arena lease with the Phoenix suburb of Glendale. Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had submitted a bid for the troubled franchise earlier this year, but withdrew it as the league continued to battle with Balsillie. It remains to be seen if Reinsdorf returns with another bid. Anyone willing to purchase the Coyotes and keep them in the Arizona desert could have some serious roster building to do if the current group of promising young players fail to play up to expectations. Critics of the Coyotes — many residing in Canada — claim it was folly to put an NHL franchise in Phoenix in the first place as hockey was never going to sell there. That overlooks the fact that, during their early years in Phoenix when the Coyotes were a playoff contending team led by names players like Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk, the Coyotes actually had good fan support. That support was notable during the playoffs, which the Coyotes made in five of their first six seasons. The stands were filled with white-clad fans carrying on the playoff tradition of the "White-Out" dating back to the franchise's years in their prior incarnation as the Winnipeg Jets. Had the Coyotes enjoyed the success of warm-weather franchises like the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning (in the years immediately following their 2004 Stanley Cup championship) they probably wouldn't be in their current state. Fans like a winner, not a constant loser like the Coyotes since 2002-03, and anyone attempting to establish a franchise in a non-traditional hockey market must ensure the club is at least competitive every year or risk losing fan support. They'll also have to engage in a significant marketing blitz to entice old fans to return and find new fans, a task which could be easier said than done if Coyotes fail to get into playoff contention over the next couple of years. The league cannot run the Coyotes indefinitely and if Bettman cannot find an owner willing to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, he'll have to find one willing to move the franchise to the city of the league's choosing. As for Balsillie, while he expended considerable capital battling the league for the Coyotes one has to believe his dream of owning an NHL franchise isn't over. Having made three attempts — the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, the Nashville Predators in 2007 and Coyotes — it's likely only a matter of time until he makes another, only next time he'll likely try to court other team owners to drum up support for his bid. The only certainty about the Coyotes for this season is that they'll still be playing in Phoenix. What happens beyond that is anyone's guess.
Tagged: Blues, Lightning, Jeremy Roenick, Coyotes, Predators, Stars, Keith Tkachuk, Penguins

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