Inside The NHL

Nov. 06, 2000
Nov. 06, 2000

Table of Contents
Nov. 6, 2000

Inside The NHL

Here We Go Again
The Coyotes are just the latest team to have an ownership mess

This is an article from the Nov. 6, 2000 issue Original Layout

Word around the Coyotes' offices is that sometime this week--or
perhaps next week or the week after that--new owners will
finally take control in Phoenix. "Of course," says one Coyotes
executive, "we've heard that about 10 times since May."

It's been a long five months in Phoenix since Wayne Gretzky's
June 1 announcement that he was joining Arizona real estate
developer Steve Ellman to purchase the Coyotes from Richard
Burke. Before Gretzky got involved (he'll own 10% of the team
and direct hockey operations), Ellman was about to balk at the
$87 million selling price, which would have cleared the way for
billionaire Paul Allen to buy the club and move it to Portland.

Having saved the franchise for Phoenix, Gretzky would like to run
it. He and Ellman, who have paid $17.5 million toward the
purchase, still owe Burke another $9.5 million that was
originally due by June 30. (They would also assume $60 million in
team debt.) Burke is so irked at the delay--apparently caused by
Ellman's and Gretzky's search for additional investors--that he
has banned Gretzky from the Coyotes' dressing room.

The drawn-out transaction has left Phoenix with as many lame
ducks as the Clinton Administration. Shortly after Gretzky hired
Cliff Fletcher as his player personnel adviser in September,
Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith began forecasting his own
dismissal. Assistant G.M. Taylor Burke, Richard's son, is also
certain to leave.

On the ice, where Phoenix got off to a rousing 8-1-2 start
through Sunday, goalie Sean Burke (no relation to Richard and
Taylor) is almost sure to lose his starting job. Gretzky has said
he plans to re-sign restricted free agent netminder Nikolai
Khabibulin and restore him to the lineup. Also, free-agent wing
Claude Lemieux has agreed to join the team when the deal is
concluded. "The situation has gotten attention, partly because of
Wayne's involvement," says the NHL's chief legal officer, William
Daly, "but what's happening isn't that unusual."

Not by NHL standards, anyway. The matter has become the latest in
a string of unseemly ownership transfers that are partly the
result of expansion. The NHL has added nine teams while four
others have relocated since 1991. In addition to diluting the
league's level of talent, the changes have made it difficult for
investors to predict their return. Consider the recent histories
of two franchises:

--The Lightning. Even before Tampa Bay entered the league in
1992-93, its Japanese ownership group missed a $22.5 million
expansion payment to the league. The owners then sold the team to
insurance tycoon Art Williams in '98. When he realized his
investment would not generate the yield he'd hoped for, Williams
sold the Lightning the next year. His final move was to scotch a
trade that would have brought Tampa Bay top goalie Roman Turek.

--The Islanders. In April 1997, Dallas huckster John Spano
purchased the team from John Pickett. Three months later Spano
was exposed as an insolvent fraud, and the sale was voided.
Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern bought the team from
Pickett in '98 and unloaded it last April, when they couldn't get
an arena built with taxpayer money as they hoped.

Ellman plans to build a $575 million complex for the Coyotes but
has yet to settle on a location, which may determine how much, if
any, public financing the Coyotes get. The uncertainty and the
ambitiousness of his plan may be what's fueling the scramble for
more investors.

For the NHL, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bruins Coaching Change
The Man Behind The Curtain

No one knows more, or cares more, about the Bruins than G.M.
Harry Sinden, who has been at his job for nearly 30 years. Last
week Sinden dismissed Pat Burns, a smart and demanding coach, and
replaced him with Mike Keenan, a smart and demanding coach, and
the decision, in Sinden's words, "came down to me."

That's true of much of what Boston does, which is why the
coaching change will likely have minimal impact. Year after year
Sinden, 68, assembles a decent team that doesn't have enough
depth for the playoff grind. Boston hasn't reached the Cup finals
since 1990. Since then eight other Eastern Conference teams have
gone to the finals, while Sinden has changed coaches five times.

Sinden made the latest switch because he felt the Bruins were
too passive under Burns. (They went 3-4-1 this season and
105-103-46 in his three-plus years at the helm.) "We were
playing every game to win 2-1," says Sinden. "I want us to be
able to win 2-1 or 7-6, depending on the night." Keenan may
inject the aggressiveness that Sinden seeks, yet Boston's fate
rests largely on its personnel, the quality of which is
restricted by team owner Jeremy Jacobs's keeping a tight lid on
payroll, a policy Sinden endorses.

In the aftermath of the coaching change, Sinden said he plans to
make way for assistant general manager Mike O'Connell to succeed
him, "sooner rather than later." Until then, for better and
worse, the Bruins will remain all about Harry.

Penalty Fallout
Special Time for Special Teams

The vast increase in penalties being called this season isn't
only leading to higher scoring (5.6 goals per game through 153
matches in 2000-01, compared with 5.3 at the same point last
season) but also is forcing coaches to reapportion ice time and,
in some cases, is affecting players' careers. The Flyers
recently sent 21-year-old rookie center Petr Hubacek to the
minors because he wasn't getting enough playing time to develop.
"You have some power plays, you kill some penalties, and
suddenly you look down and you have a guy who's only played a
minute and a half," says Philadelphia coach Craig Ramsay. "It's
hard to keep things balanced."

Kings coach Andy Murray, concerned that his penalty killers were
playing too many minutes, has tried to spread playing time by
employing skilled forwards such as Ziggy Palffy on the penalty
kill. Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn recently used three power-play
units in a game against Minnesota. "Would I normally do that?"
Quinn says. "Of course not."

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL Burke, who like Phoenix is off to a fast start, could lose his job if Gretzky's group gets control.COLOR PHOTO: J. RUSSELL/B. BENNETT STUDIOS COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS


A first-round pick in 1987, he has a feathery touch as a
playmaker but an otherwise soft game. At week's end he had two
goals and 10 assists this season, giving him 153 goals and 379
assists in 739 career games.


A first-round pick in 1986, he has a heavy shot but is barely
more physical than Cassels. At week's end he had 12 goals and
three assists this season, giving him 246 goals and 305 assists
in 833 career games.

The Verdict: While Cassels's passing ability comes in handy,
Young is our choice, because goals are better than assists.