So here's where we are as the Disaster in the Desert -- the battle for the savaged remains of the Phoenix Coyotes -- grinds toward something akin to a legal resolution:
We have a $212 million bid from Canadian Jim Balsillie -- who was unanimously approved as an NHL owner when he agreed to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins three years ago, but has now been rejected as unfit -- that is contingent on an immediate move to Hamilton, a city in the shadow of two established franchises: the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.
If you don't think that represents a world of problems for Buffalo, Toronto, the NHL and all sports leagues that insist they have the right to pick their partners and determine where teams do business, well, you simply haven't been reading the friends-of-the-court briefs filed by the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, or seen the clumps of hair torn out of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's tortured scalp.
We also a group of seemingly well-financed Canadian and American investors called Ice Edge Holdings who want to bid "no more than $150 million" contingent on a new lease with the city of Glendale, which owns the arena where the bankrupt Coyotes play. They also want to play some "home" games in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan or Halifax, Nova Scotia (yet to be approved by the NHL) and keep coach, minority partner and legendary NHL icon Wayne Gretzky employed in some capacity.
However: Edge Holdings has yet to have a meaningful discussion with the Beleaguered One, who can no longer show his face lest he be peppered with questions regarding why he hasn't been more vocal in support of keeping the team in Phoenix or done all in his power to return a franchise to Canada, the country of his birth where he is usually more popular than God.
Suddenly missing from the fray is Jerry Reinsdorf, who prior to this week was the NHL's preferred bidder (some say puppet) even though it was abundantly clear that he wasn't interested in spending a dime of his own money. He wanted concessions from Glendale on the lease, a $23 million annual tax on citizens, be they hockey fans or not. He also wanted a guarantee that if he couldn't make money with a franchise that's been bleeding red ink for years, he would get a cash payment from the city to cover his losses while he looked for a place to relocate the team.
The departure of Reinsdorf, utterly foreseeable under the conditions, led to the fascinating announcement this week that the NHL would bid on the Coyotes, reportedly to the tune of $140 million but with a proviso of continuing in Glendale under current terms with outs that allow the league to renegotiate the lease and find a suitable buyer. Hardly trumpeted is the little something that says the NHL will conduct "an organized bid process to relocate the franchise in another territory" if a buyer wishing to keep it in Phoenix can't be found. The league maintains that it plans only to manage the Coyotes until they can be sold to an acceptable third party.
Pardon us while we roll the tape back to the words: "an organized bid process to relocate the franchise in another territory."
Wasn't the NHL's plan from the get-go designed to keep the team in Phoenix at any cost? Is the NHL saying -- after months of costly legal battles, a very public dirty street fight in which it demonized Balsillie and was demonized by him, not to mention sworn testimony that exposed some of Bettman's statements as outright lies and/or blatant misstatements of fact -- that it is now willing to drop the charade of fighting to keep the franchise in Glendale?
In a word: yes. But only after it buys its way out of the proceedings so as to not have to deal with matters of bankruptcy law.
It's still impossible to predict where the Coyotes auction is headed, who will be allowed to participate, and who will end up owning them, but the one drum-beat message from the NHL was that it was fighting in court and the public arena to keep its commitment to Glendale and the fans who may or may not reside in greater Phoenix. The good people there, and the politicians who gave away the store while erecting a building for the exclusive use of an NHL franchise, have spent millions of tax dollars for the sole purpose of a real estate development that happened to include an arena with an anchor tenant. This is what sports leagues do, unlike businesses that must find ways to capitalize and construct places to build or sell wares. Pro sports entities get taxpayers -- via their elected officials -- to do their construction for them. The deals are rarely good for taxpayers, but politicians like them, and the construction industry usually profits to the max. The tradeoff is supposed to be that, having delivered a state of the art place in which to play, the league will commit to it for at least a period of time.
Aside from protecting the Maple Leafs' territory, perhaps until the league can sell off a chunk for untold millions, keeping the Coyotes in Glendale was supposed to be the NHL's way of honoring its obligation to a minuscule fan base, overburdened taxpayers, free-spending politicians, and itself. After all, if it or any other pro league were to run out on the strings attached to a virtual free ride at taxpayer expense, how in the world (other than the bankruptcy proceedings used to keep teams in Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles afloat) would the NHL be able to convince another collection of elected suckers to finance and build an arena?
What's happening is that the NHL, backed by its owners and fronted by Bettman, is attempting to buy a team out from under owner-of-record Jerry Moyes, leave him (and presumably Gretzky) with as close to nothing as possible, and operate at losses that no single businessman could sustain, then fob the team off on a hand-picked buyer who, according to the league's filings in court, will be allowed "to relocate the franchise in another territory."
Let that sink in for a moment. Those are the exact words that spawned expressions of horror and cries of betrayal regarding the good people of Glendale from a league fond of saying that "it doesn't run out on its fans" and "doesn't run away from its problems, it fixes them."
This bankruptcy proceeding, if anything, has exposed a seamy underside of the NHL that prospective "partners" -- especially those who might be asked to fund a new arena somewhere -- are likely to want to keep at a considerable distance.
All of this sturm and drang for what? So that a perceived rogue like Balsillie can't take a bucket of red ink and turn it into a profit-maker? So that a territory (Toronto) that truly is both underserved and desperate for an alternative to one of the most hapless operations in the history of the game can be protected? So that a league can protect itself from those who have proved to be no more or less desirable than the business people they are?
And to what end?
If Balsillie loses his bid in Phoenix and the NHL "wins" the right to absorb the debt of a failed franchise and sell it at a price likely to drive down the value of other teams, is there any reason to believe that he won't try again with another troubled franchise, say in Tampa Bay, South Florida, Carolina, Atlanta or someplace else? Is there reason to believe that Balsillie, after being deemed lacking in "good character and integrity" by a league that's had more than a few former members view the world from behind bars, won't continue to dog the NHL with lawsuits that allege antitrust? After all, the man has a billion dollar war chest, time, an army of lawyers who insist he has a case, and a desire to win that is so tenacious he's forced Reinsdorf out and the league into the almost unheard-of action of having to bid on a franchise just to keep a bankruptcy court from ruling against it.
The NHL is actually right to make it bid, and one shouldn't be surprised that it did. MLB made a similar move with the Expos, buying and operating the team in Montreal before eventually repositioning the it -- on MLB's terms - in Washington, D.C. One has to assume the NHL knew the Coyotes mess could come to this and is acting in its own best interests even if other people find that shocking. But the bid won't end the fight, and that's the one truth that no one should find surprising. No matter what happens in court next week, it's a pretty safe bet that we won't see an ending.
Just a break between rounds.
If you are the kind of "look at me" athlete who wants all the attention focused on him all of the time, then you wouldn't pick a week when the Canadians are holding their Olympic Evaluation Camp and the league is dropping blockbuster pronouncements in a bankruptcy proceeding to announce your retirement.
That is likely why Mike Sillinger chose this week to announce his retirement after 17 NHL seasons. It's not that he wanted to go. Sillinger recently endured two hip surgeries in the hopes of playing an 18th season, maybe more, but it wasn't to be. The 38-year-old accepted what his body was telling him.
You might not know Sillinger, especially if you are not a loyal fan of the New York Islanders or any of the other 11 NHL teams for which he has played. That's right. An even dozen, an NHL record for one player. But lest you think that Sillinger wasn't a "wanted" man, just the opposite was true. He was one of those players that every team wanted because, though he was never a star, he could do a remarkable number of things well and had great team-building and leadership skills, too.
Sillinger was never a great scorer, but he could score timely goals. He could also check, pass, and use the body, and he was excellent at winning faceoffs. Those are the kinds of things that coaches' value in a role player. He was a role player extraordinaire.
With Sillinger leaving the game, there are likely more than a dozen coaches who will tell you that it's a sad day for hockey, and they won't be wrong.
I don't rule out the idea of Chris Chelios getting a look-see with Nashville. The Predators have a good-to-nearly-great defense, but it's also young. Having a steadying influence like Chelios to help develop it on and off the ice is a logical use of his talents, especially at this point in his legendary career.
It's just that I can see Chelios playing that role for several teams, and though it may not look like a given that he'll find a spot just yet (budgets and rosters being what they are), it's likely that a variety of GMs will wait until training camps are over so they can better assess their needs before making a move on an ancient player the Detroit Red Wings opted not to re-sign.
At 47, Chelios is nowhere near the player he once was, but his commitment to the game is every bit as strong as ialways, and he can still play a useful role, especially a team that needs to experience firsthand how well he prepares himself physically and mentally for the rigors of the NHL. Nashville is on that list and would be fortunate to land him, but one could say the same regarding at least half a dozen teams, maybe more.
To Chelios' benefit, he knows that at his age it may take awhile to get a gig, but he'll likely get one for three good reasons: any team that has him in its locker room will be better for the experience; he can still play a little; and he won't cost too much.
Chelios knows that budgets are tight, especially for teams that can't afford to spend to the cap, but money isn't likely to be a problem for him. This is a guy who simply wants to keep playing and will adjust his contact accordingly. A wise GM will recognize that, and when he signs him he'll get more in value than he has to spend.
That's a rare opportunity in the NHL today and some club is certain to realize it.