Coyotes moving closer to decision

Nearly two years of uncertainty over the future of the Phoenix Coyotes could be drawing to an end in the coming weeks.

The Coyotes team will either have a new owner in place by Dec. 31, ensuring the franchise remains in Phoenix, or could be sold to an owner that may move it to another city — perhaps even return it to Winnipeg.

The league, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, has tried for more than a year to attract potential buyers willing to keep the team in Phoenix. The move was necessary after the NHL secured interim ownership of the Coyotes in a settlement with former owner Jerry Moyes following a bankruptcy hearing that prevented its sale to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, who intended to move the franchise to southern Ontario.

Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and a group of businessmen called Ice Edge Holdings were believed at various times over the past year to be close to buying the team only to have the deals fall through.

By mid-September, Bettman’s patience appeared to be nearing an end as he told a group of reporters the league might have to consider other alternatives if the sale of the team hadn’t gone through by Dec. 31, but Bettman said the league would still try its best to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.

“We have always fought hard to fix the problems,” he told reporters, “and I tend to think when there are off-ice issues, they tend to get more blown up.”

Still, it was widely believed, especially in the Canadian press, that a Canadian buyer — True North Sports and Entertainment — was reportedly willing to purchase the Coyotes and return the franchise to Winnipeg, where the club originated as the Jets from 1972 to 1979 in the old World Hockey Association and in the NHL from 1979 to 1996 when it was sold and moved to Phoenix.

But it now appears another bidder has emerged who is willing to keep the Coyotes in Arizona.

On Friday, it was reported Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer, along with the league and the city of Glendale, had “verbally agreed” to a “conceptual deal” that would see Hulsizer become the Coyotes’ new owner.

The deal, reportedly worth $165 million with a Nov. 30 closing date, would have to go before the NHL Board of Governors for approval.

Cynics are quick to point out the number of times over the past year previous “deals in principle” to purchase the Coyotes fell through, but this current one is the closest to an actual sale since its previous owner declared the club bankrupt last year. This comes as good news for Coyotes hockey fans and in the coming weeks could significantly bolster the club’s ticket sales.

Despite setting franchise records last season for single season wins (50) and points (107) in returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Coyotes were at the bottom of the league in attendance in 2009-10, averaging a dismal 11,989 fans per game.

Much of that is attributed to years of mediocrity and mismanagement but was also tied to uncertainty over the team’s future in Phoenix as fans were unwilling to invest money in watching a team, which was expected to be gone by the summer of 2010.

The on-ice success last season translated into a strong gate for their season-opener last week with over 17,000 in attendance, which bodes well for sales this season — dependent on the stability of the club’s ownership as well as of its on-ice product.

One way or another, the future of the Coyotes appears close to a resolution.