By Jim Kelley
September 10, 2009

Once again there will be no quick decision as to whether Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie obtains the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes and moves them to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. As of this writing, there are only two bids on the table and one of them -- Balsillie's -- far outdistances the NHL's, but the judge presiding over this matter is indicating that he may boot both of them.

This leads to a very reasonable question: what are the Coyotes worth? My estimate, conservatively: a negative $45 million. That's right -- $45 million red ink-stained dollars, and likely a good deal more.

"Jim, have you taken leave of your dollars and senses?" you may ask.

But consider: Balsillie's bid ($212.5 million with perhaps an additional $50 million for Glendale, Ariz.) may be ridiculously high, but it comes with the team moving to a place the NHL doesn't want it to go with an owner it does not want in its ranks. In reality, Balsillie is bidding not just for the Coyotes, but for territorial rights in what may be the world's most lucrative hockey market.

The NHL's $140 million is well off the $200 million-plus it's been citing as pretty much the bare minimum for any franchise -- without an arena lease or roster -- since the 2004 lockout. It also comes with the substantial caveat that should it gain control, the NHL will decide what creditors get paid and sell the franchise to a buyer who may leave Glendale with an empty white elephant that taxpayers funded to the tune of $180 million based in part on assurances that the city would be protected by a lease binding the team to the arena for 30 years. Said lease was thought to be ironclad in part because, well, because the Commissioner himself told the developers and city fathers that the NHL "does not run out on its partners."

Consider also that proposed bidder Jerry Reinsdorf opted not to put any of his own money in and pulled out when he couldn't get a $23 million tax subsidy, lease concessions and a guarantee that taxpayers cover five years worth of possible losses. Ice Edge holdings, a dubious bidder to begin with, pulled its "no more than $150 million" reportedly because it too couldn't get a near-free ride, a request that came atop the sweetheart lease that pretty much lured the team to Glendale in the first place.

If you value this franchise according to what it is -- a losing hockey team in a market that shows little interest, especially in going to an arena outside the city of Phoenix and it's most prosperous suburb, Scottsdale -- the Coyotes would appear to be, in the words of former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green "who they thought they were." That is a loser that attracted no bids from people without an agenda, so the value is exactly what bidders not named Balsillie or the NHL have put on the table: a big fat zero.

"But wait," as the late Billy Mays used to say, "there's more." According to owner Jerry Moyes, he's lost along the lines of $30 million in at least each of the last three years. Even the NHL has acknowledged that the franchise doesn't make money, but it's a grudging admission. The league argues that Moyes inflated the figure. But despite his initial claims to the contrary, Gary Bettman had to admit in court that the NHL advanced operating funds to the Coyotes for longer than it was at first willing to admit.

So, conservatively estimating by half, the Coyotes have likely bled at least $45 million over the last three years. That's our minus value, and we haven't even begun to figure in the value (or lack of same) of Wayne Gretzky's salary.

At those kinds of numbers, one is tempted to suggest that Dany Heatley get in on the bidding. It would be an easy way for him to play for a team of his choosing while avoiding a dreaded stretch with the Ottawa Senators or Edmonton Oilers.

While bilking investors out of $20 million to buy part ownership in the Nashville Predators, William "Boots" DelBiaggio was vetted and approved by the same Board of Governors that found Balsillie lacking in "character and integrity." Del Biaggio also scammed another $90 million and has been ordered to pay back some $67.5 million as part of his sentence. That prompted us to do a little scorecard regarding the merits of the approved DelBiaggio and the disapproved Balsillie.

Are you a convicted felon? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Have you been ordered to report to a federal penitentiary? Balsillie, no: DelBiaggio, yes.

Have you been ordered by a federal judge to get treatment for an unspecified "substance abuse issue"? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Have you been convicted of defrauding investors in order to buy a share of an NHL team? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Have you had to admit in open court that you used phony collateral to borrow millions from banks, businesses and associates, including NHL owners Craig Leipold and Phil Anschutz? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Have you been called out by a federal judge for your decision to "every single day make decisions to cheat and to lie"? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Have the outcome of your actions left your fraudulently-obtained shares of a team at the mercy of a bankruptcy court and put the current owners at risk? Balsillie, no; DelBiaggio, yes.

Has one of the alleged partners in your scheme stated for the record that you would try to gain control of the Predators and move them to an Anschutz-managed building in Kansas City, and did you make that presentation to potential investors while claiming that the NHL both knew and approved? Balsillie, no; Del Biaggio, yes.

Have you taken ticket orders for a franchise you had an agreement in principal to buy, but without a signed deal, assuming that you would gain control and move it to Hamilton? Balsillie, yes, DelBiaggio, no.

Hmmn, as undesirable actions that show an appalling lack of character and integrity go, this is a choice between a guy vetted by the NHL's due diligence investigation who is now going to federal prison on a fraud rap and a fellow who merely angered the NHL by taking ticket requests for a team he didn't yet own.

You be the judge.

While we're on the subject of ownership issues, it appears the much-hyped sale of the Florida Panthers is in trouble. The NHL doesn't like current owner Alan Cohen's desire to sell to a group called Sports Properties Acquisitions because SPA is a public company (one charged by its founders with finding and buying a sports franchise) and there would be no one person with the equity necessary to cover losses or deal with other financial difficulties should they arise.

Given the situation in nearby Tampa Bay, it's a fairly reasonable concern, but it does beg the question of exactly what do you own when you buy an NHL franchise even if you're approved as an owner?

The NHL has argued in court that Moyes had no right to put his beleaguered Coyotes into bankruptcy, and it should be noted that the NHL acted very quickly to remove the Rigas family as owners of the Buffalo Sabres once they fell into the sights of federal prosecutors who, much later, convicted them of fraud and security funding issues.

But who really owns an NHL franchise: the owner of record responsible for all expenses and the majority of risk, or the league?

The NHL seems to be arguing that a franchise comes from the league itself and therefore it has sway over who can be a partner and can pull a franchise from an owner under certain circumstances. The NHL certainly seems to be making headway in that regard as it has all but disowned Lightning co-owner Len Barrie by claiming that his window -- which it imposed-- to buy out partner Oren Koules has closed. Koules is said to be listening to an offer from a Florida real estate mogul who may have an interest in buying Barrie's share, but he, too, would have to be approved by the NHL.

Neither Koules nor Barrie appear to have the resources to buy out the other, let alone pay back the money owed to the estate of the late William Davidson. Meanwhile, Cohen is also reported to have had difficulty finding a financial partner for the Panthers, part of the reason he entertained the offer from Sports Properties Acquisitions.

There's a buzz in hockey circles that the NHLPA is thinking about trying to hire outgoing Major League Baseball Players Association boss Donald Fehr. It sounds intriguing, especially if you accept the premise that the group that overthrew Paul Kelly in a coup last week wants a more high profile and aggressive union leader.

From here, it looks more like a smokescreen designed to take pressure off the PA, which has come under fire from a variety of directions, including Ted Lindsay -- one of the original founders of the PA and a man who has denounced Kelly's firing -- and legendary defenseman Bobby Orr, who was an advocate of Kelly dating back to Orr's battle with former NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson. (Kelly was the prosecutor who put Eagleson in jail.)

It's hard to imagine Fehr as a candidate when the PA's interim boss, Ian Penney (who also happens to be one of the principals in overthrowing Kelly) acknowledged to USA Today this week that the process of finding a new leader is undetermined because "some players aren't sure the old way is the best way to find the right person."

Fair point, especially if you're looking to replace Kelly with one of the instigators of the coup, but one could also argue that the new way of firing the union head might not be right either. This was done by a vote from a very small slice of the rank and file: one rep from each of the 30 teams.

I've worked union and non-union jobs and while I can't speak for every union, the ones I've been associated with have always allowed for the members to vote on their leadership, pro or con. In dismissing Kelly without giving a voice to players like superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin right down to the player in the press box who is hoping to find a spot on the fourth line or as a seventh or eighth defenseman, the reps did the people they represent a tremendous disservice.

Worse, the PA provides no voice for retired players like Lindsay, Orr, Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, men who had a huge role in not only building the NHLPA, but in the case of Lemieux and Gretzky, making extraordinary financial sacrifices as individuals for the greater good of the membership.

To exclude so many isn't just wrong, it's shameful. Almost as shameful as firing the man who found justice for the many retired players who were victims of Eagleson's shameless conduct.

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