Bettman says NHL still hoping to stay in Phoenix
CHICAGO (AP) — The Phoenix Coyotes are about to be in limbo no more.
Where they’ll end up, however, is up to the Glendale City Council.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday he didn’t want to give a timetable for a decision, preferring to let the process play out without added pressure on negotiations between the new ownership group and city officials. But the City Council has a meeting June 25, and the NHL’s Board of Governors meets two days later.
“Maybe,” Bettman said when asked if a decision needs to be made before the board meeting. “Stuff’s going to happen.”
The NHL has delayed the release of next season’s schedule until next month, in part because it needs to know where — or if — the Coyotes are playing.
“Obviously we’re getting to the point where some decisions are going to have to be made, both by the city of Glendale and by us,” Bettman said before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. “We haven’t set a deadline, but the time is getting shorter. ... We’re still focused on making it work with the Coyotes staying in Arizona.”
The NHL has operated the Coyotes since they were purchased out of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 2009 following former owner Jerry Moyes’ attempt to sell the team to Blackberry founder Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario. After numerous suitors fell through, the NHL finally reached agreement last month to sell the team to Renaissance Sports & Entertainment, a group headed by Canadian investors George Gosbee, Anthony LeBlanc and Daryl Jones.
But their deal is contingent upon reaching a new lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena, and negotiations with Glendale continue to drag on.
“This is really going to be a decision that the city of Glendale is going to have to make,” Bettman said.
Added deputy commissioner Bill Daly, “They know what our decision timeline is and what are the decisions we have to make. There’s no misunderstandings.”
Phoenix ranked second-to-last in attendance this season, drawing fewer than 14,000 fans per game. That was about 81 percent capacity of Jobing.com Arena, well below the regular-season league average of 97 percent. But that isn’t an indication that a franchise can’t succeed in Arizona, Bettman said.
“We actually believe that if you gave the community an owner, not the league, who said, ‘I’m committed to being there,’ this franchise could be successful from a business standpoint,” Bettman said. “We’ve seen what the fan base there can do with the uncertainty. ... If there was certainty surrounding the franchise, its fortunes would improve dramatically and immediately, just by virtue of putting in a real owner.”
But the league won’t let the uncertainty drag on any longer.
Asked what the NHL will do if the new owners and city officials can’t reach an agreement, Bettman said he wasn’t going to get into speculation. But mothballing the team is one option. So is moving it, and Bettman indicated there are cities that could take control of the Coyotes this summer and be ready to play in October.
“There are a myriad of options,” he said. “The focus, at least for the time being, remains on having the Coyotes in Arizona. Obviously, we’ll have lots of choices, options and decisions. If we get to that point — and hopefully we won’t — then we’ll focus on which one is the best.”
Bettman touched on several other topics in his half-hour news conference, including whether NHL players will be at the Sochi Olympics next year. Though Bettman said he’s “optimistic” a deal will be reached, the distance and the location — Sochi is a 10 ½- hour flight from New York — have complicated the talks.
“We continue to work at it,” Daly said. “The parties have been in close contact in recent days, and we hope to get together and get it hammered out in the near future.”
Bettman also said the NHL is thriving despite the lockout that shortened the season to 48 games. Arenas were 97 percent full during the regular season and have topped 100 percent during the playoffs, he said. There also have been increases — “and records, in some cases” — in TV ratings, both nationally and locally, Bettman said.
The league also expects to see revenues above what would correspond with only playing 58 percent of its schedule.
“Obviously we had a start to the season which was not the one we wanted,” Bettman said. “But when you look at the entirety of what’s gone on, no doubt our fans have been nothing short of spectacular. We’re grateful for that and we thank them.”
Bettman was the target of much of the fans’ ire during the lockout. But he has continued to be visible, and that won’t change when it comes to awarding the Stanley Cup.
Asked if he planned to award the trophy to either Boston or Chicago, Bettman responded with an emphatic, “Yes.”