Out of Bounds: NHL's warm-weather crows come home to roost

In the April 23, 2009 issue of The Lamron, I wrote an Out of Bounds column lambasting the National Hockey League's overzealous expansion into untested warm-weather markets, and suggested that failing warm-weather franchises should fold.

On May 5, 2009, one such franchise, the Phoenix Coyotes, filed for bankruptcy. The very next day, Canadian billionaire and Blackberry mogul Jim Balsillie put in an offer to buy the franchise with the intent of relocating the team to the hockey-crazed region of Hamilton, Ontario.

In theory, it should have been an I-told-you-so moment. Surely the NHL would own up to its miscalculated relocation of the Coyotes (formerly the Winnipeg Jets) and rightfully return the team to Canada. The volatile proceedings of the past several months, however, have shown that the NHL has no intention of swallowing its pride. Furthermore, they have indicated that the proposed relocation - to Hamilton, at least - might do more harm than good for the league.

The NHL so far has vehemently fought Balsillie's proposed relocation. All other NHL owners unanimously voted that he be barred from purchasing the team, and as of recently, the NHL has submitted its own counter-bid in another attempt to block Balsillie's persistent efforts to wrangle the Coyotes to Hamilton. Other prospective buyers have since withdrawn their bids, creating a face-off between Balsillie (bid: $242.5 million) and the league (bid: $140 million).

Jeff Holbrook, the executive vice president and chief communications officer of the Coyotes, said that whoever ends up owning the team will decide its future home and that, at this point, the superior offer is at the sole discretion of the bankruptcy court judge.

"We all come to work, we do the best we can, but at the end of the day whoever buys this team is going to do with it what they want," Holbrook said. "They're going to keep it in Phoenix if they want and they're going to move it to Tupelo, Miss. if they want. Geneseo, N.Y., wherever they decide they want to take it, that's what a few hundred million dollars and buying a franchise will do for you."

For Balsillie, it appears that move would be to Hamilton. Although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is certainly stubborn for desperately trying to keep the team in Arizona, Hamilton should be nowhere near the top of the list of potential NHL cities.

Hamilton lies within 45 miles of Toronto and Buffalo, all but guaranteeing that, if a team were to sprout up, it would infringe upon both the Maple Leafs and Sabres fan bases. As the largest market in the most passionate hockey country in the world, the Leafs would likely be able to handle having another franchise nearby.

However, such a move would put tremendous pressure on the small-market Sabres, who, according to a press release accompanying a letter from N.Y. Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to Bettman, "receive approximately 15 to 20 percent of their revenue from the fans that live between Hamilton and Buffalo."

Holbrook, who worked for the Sabres for 16 years prior to joining the Coyotes, said that Hamilton was never regarded as a threat to the Sabres' fan base. "Oddly, living in Buffalo all those years and being from the area … the impression is that Hamilton and Canada are separate from everything else, so we never really thought of it being infringing upon our territory," he said.

Holbrook continued, "When I was in Buffalo, when [Hamilton] got an American [Hockey] League team [in 1996] we never thought, 'Oh, that's going to kill our fan base.' But the NHL, it's the biggest hockey league in the world, and Canadian fans are rabid for their hockey. Would it have an effect? I would imagine it would, although you never really know until it happens."

Regardless of any potential detriment to the Sabres or Maple Leafs, the damage has already been done to the Coyotes - who, by the way, are still playing this season no matter who signs their paychecks. Notably absent from Phoenix's training camp, however, has been head coach Wayne Gretzky, also a managing partner for the Coyotes.

Gretzky is seemingly keeping a low profile until his role on the team is determined, which won't happen until after the sale of the franchise is approved. "He's the coach of this team until somebody tells me otherwise," said Holbrook of the rumors surrounding Gretzky's absence. "Regardless of whether he's the coach or the managing partner or whatever his role is, he's a huge part of what we do around here and he's a huge influence on this franchise and we all want him back and we'll get him back … as soon as he can."

But, until a sale is finalized, the futures for Gretzky and the Coyotes and remain in limbo.