Why can't the NHL work in Phoenix?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The fight to save the Phoenix Coyotes will come to a conclusion soon, one way or another. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman still won't say how soon, and he certainly wasn't going to make an announcement Tuesday night as he watched the Vancouver Canucks' 3-2 overtime victory over the Nashville Predators.

But Bettman insisted the league was still fighting and would keep fighting to the finish, whenever that is, sometime before the league releases its schedule for the 2011-12 season this summer, and from his seats in a suite at Bridgestone Arena, you could see things from his perspective.

The league kept fighting for the Predators in 2007, when their ownership was unstable and a buyer was ready, willing and able to move them from a nontraditional market to a hockey-mad Canadian one. Now here they were with a sellout crowd of screaming, towel-waving fans, playing a second-round playoff game in Nashville for the first time.

"We believe that under the right circumstances, franchises should be able to work where they are," Bettman told Yahoo! Sports. "There may come a point in time where, for a variety of factors, we can't make it work, but that doesn't mean you don't try. How many years ago were there articles about this team not being in our league? It was never close to happening, but those were the articles, and all it was was speculation."

All we can do is speculate about the Coyotes at this point. Will they stay in Glendale, Arizona? Will they move back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they were the Jets from 1979-96 and a new ownership group is in place? If you're looking for hard news, Bettman isn't giving any. He isn't giving up yet.

Twice, the NHL thwarted Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie from buying a team in a nontraditional market and moving it to Hamilton, Ont. In 2007, Balsillie tried to buy the troubled Predators, who were sold to a group of Nashville investors instead. In 2009, Balsillie tried to buy the bankrupt Coyotes, but a judge blocked the sale and the league took control.

The NHL then reached a deal to sell the Coyotes and keep them in Glendale. But long story short, the city has to sell $100 million in bonds, give the proceeds to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer to purchase the team and recoup the money with parking revenue as part of the lease agreement for city-owned Jobing.com Arena. The Goldwater Institute, a public watchdog group, has scared off investors by threatening to sue, saying the deal is illegal.

The fact the league collected $25 million from Glendale to cover its losses for the 2010-11 season – and that it collected that money this week – was "no surprise" and "no issue," according to Bettman. It was part of the deal the league had with the city, and when the Coyotes' season ended, it was time to collect. It doesn't necessarily mean the league will take the money and run.

"We're going to work on it until we run out of time, and hopefully we'll solve it," Bettman said. "We had it solved once, and the Goldwater Institute caused that deal to collapse, and so what everybody's focused on is whether there's another way to do it."

The NHL is trying to take Goldwater out of the equation. Bettman said the question was whether those involved could give "the bonds certain attributes that would give a buyer of them greater security or more protection." He declined to go into greater detail.

Bettman also declined to address whether the Atlanta Thrashers would quickly become candidates to move to Winnipeg if the league can keep the Coyotes in Glendale.

"I'm not sure why these stories are starting, but I'm not going to weigh in on something that is purely speculative and made up," Bettman said. "The fact of the matter is, we're focused on making Phoenix work, and that's where we're directing our attention right now."

The NHL has made Nashville work. For all the ownership upheaval, the Predators have had remarkable stability in hockey operations – with one general manager, David Poile, and one coach, Barry Trotz, since they joined the league in 1998. They have been a model of drafting and development. They have become consistently competitive. They're still trying to raise attendance and revenue, but they're making progress. They say it isn't about survival anymore, it's about the Stanley Cup.

The Nashville example gives hope to everyone, even though you wonder where the Predators would be if they weren't one of the best-run franchises in the league. That hope extends, ironically, to Winnipeg. If the Predators can make it work, why couldn't the Jets come back now that the NHL has a salary cap and the Canadian dollar is high?

"I've always said I believe a team could work in Winnipeg," Bettman said. "But … until we're ready to move a team or expand, that's not the focus of any dialogue, because there's lots of places where teams could work but we're not there now."

There are lots of reasons why the NHL is the places it is now, having pushed into southern U.S. markets via relocation and expansion under Bettman. And there are lots of reasons why the league still believes in those markets, especially in the long term.

"I think you can have an argument about whether the Bettman strategy was the correct strategy to be following or not," said Scott Hickman, a Nashville lawyer who has had Predators season tickets since their inception. "But I really don't think you can argue that the Bettman strategy isn't working and doing what it is designed to do, which is to bring hockey, to get more kids involved in hockey, to raise up a new generation of hockey fans, in places where it would not have been."

The game is starting to take root in Nashville. Center Steve Sullivan(notes) has seen it sprout since he joined the Predators in 2004, from the carnival atmosphere outside Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday – complete with stilt-walkers and jugglers and musicians – to the local arenas where kids play.

"That's probably the biggest thing I've seen is the growth of youth hockey," Sullivan said. "That's where it needs to grow. Grass roots. You want those kids to fall in love and become passionate about the game, and when they have a chance to earn a dollar, hopefully when they have extra cash, they're going to put it toward the game of hockey."

It is a slow process, though. The Predators broke new ground when they arrived. Say a couple of parents took their 10-year-old son to the game then and got him hooked on hockey. That young fan is maybe getting out of college now. It might be a while yet before he's in a position to buy tickets, take his own kid to a game and pass on the sport.

"Comparing an expansion team to an Original Six team is not fair," Bettman said. "You're comparing first-generation to multi-generation, and the fact is … it takes time."

And even Original Six teams haven't been immune to problems. Bettman pointed to the early history of the league, when franchises needed to become established in what are now considered traditional markets. The Red Wings were in the Detroit River when owner Mike Ilitch bought them in 1982, as Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano has often said. The Chicago Blackhawks weren't selling out just a few years ago before they blossomed into a Stanley Cup contender.

"Every market is different," Bettman said. "Every ownership group is different. Every hockey operations department is different. Unfortunately … people look to generalize and reach a conclusion, and situations are individualized. They're not subject to generalization. Why were the Canadian franchises in trouble 10 years ago and they're not now? You can't point to one thing."

Why keep fighting for Phoenix? The same reason the NHL fought for Nashville.

"Because we fight hard for every city," Bettman said. "Because we owe it to our fans. Because if you're a fan in any city and you watch what we do, or you watch what any sports league does, if we don't protect you as fans in one place, then maybe you'll start question how well we'll protect you in your place. Because we have a covenant with our fans, and our fans need to know that we will stand by them as long as possible and that we don't just run out."

That's commish speak, of course. But that doesn't mean it's untrue. If anyone should know how bad it feels to lose a team – and how jobs are lost and lives are affected – it should be people in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City.

The NHL made a commitment to these new markets with a long-term vision. There is much invested in this financially and philosophically. Though there have been some epic struggles in the short term, Bettman has always been able to find ways to get out of trouble.

You wonder how many more rich people he can find to pour millions into NHL franchises – with the economy still recovering and so many teams looking for lead buyers and minority investors. You wonder how many more maneuvers he has left. You wonder if Phoenix or Atlanta will mark his first true setback, his first step back geographically.

But clearly, if that time is coming, if it's almost here, it's only as a last resort. Asked if he was fighting as hard as ever in Phoenix, Bettman stared straight ahead at the sold-out stands in Nashville.

"Nothing's changed," Bettman said. "Still working on it."