Potential suitors express interest in Thrashers

It�s been about three weeks since the race has begun for the Thrashers. Yes, the playoff race, in which they have won their last two games to draw within five points of the Eastern Conference final playoff spot, but also the race for their survival in Atlanta.

Three weeks ago Michael Gearon Jr., one of the team�s owners, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the group had a sense of �urgency� to find new investors or a buyer or else the group might be forced to sell the franchise to someone who could possibly move it out of town.

�If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that�s what’s going to happen,� Gearon� told the paper. �I don�t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in [annual] losses. We just can�t do it.

�The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors or a primary investor.�

The good news for Thrashers fans is Gearon�s message seems to be finding an audience. Team president Don Waddell told the AJC Wednesday three different potential suitors, including two based in Atlanta, have expressed interest in purchasing the team and desire to keep it there.

Nonetheless, the difference between expressing interest, signing non-disclosure agreements to look at the team�s financial data and from signing a completed agreement with league approval is epic. Time Warner announced that it had an agreement to sell the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena to Atlanta Spirit Sept. 16, 2003. The deal closed March 31, 2004, a span of six-and-half months.

While it�s not a simple or quick process, that�s not to say it�s impossible either. In fact, it�s very possible to agree on terms rather quickly (as the Spirit did with Time Warner; it took them about four weeks). If that is the case, having an agreement � sort of like having a contract on a home while awaiting the closing � would probably be enough to remove the threat of possible relocation.

However, the key for any deal, of course, is that it ultimately closes. Having difficulty closing the deal is the situation in Phoenix where the sale of the Coyotes currently seems to have entered a perilous phase. This is the second season in which the NHL has operated the Coyotes, and each day the league runs the team is another in which the owners collectively lose money.

The saga of the Coyotes is complex, but presently the deal is being held up because a nonprofit group, the Goldwater Institute, is suing under open records laws to find out more about the terms of the sale to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer. The group alleges that the deal between the City of Glendale, home of the Coyotes� Jobing.com Arena, and Hulsizer violates terms of the state�s constitution.

According to its Website (the group is named for the former U.S. senator from Arizona who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1964 and who is considered the father of the modern conservative movement), the Goldwater Institute considers itself �an independent government watchdog� and says that part of its mission is to enforce �constitutionally limited government through litigation.�

The group alleges that Glendale is providing Hulsizer with a gift in the form of a taxpayer subsidy to buy the team.

�The Goldwater Institute will continue to enforce public records laws and the judges rulings in court as necessary to make sure taxpayers are not kept in the dark and have an opportunity to analyze and comment on the City’s proposed course of action before they are committed to a deal,� the group says on its Website in reference to the case.

The situation is urgent enough that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly traveled to Glendale Tuesday. They held a press conference blasting the Goldwater Institute for holding up the sale and asking it to drop the suit. The signs are not bright for the Coyotes. The institute�s director refused an invitation from Bettman for a private meeting to discuss their differences.

That night, Bettman appeared on FOX Sports Arizona�s broadcast for a brief question-and-answer session. Play-by-play man Dave Strader asked Bettman pointedly, �How do we get out of this deadlock?�

Bettman�s answer was ominous for Coyotes fans.

�Well we may not and something�s got to give and time is running out,� he said. �We�re going to hang on to this as long as possible. We�ve been committed to the City of Glendale and we�re going to stay committed as long as we can, but time isn�t infinite.�

How much longer Bettman is willing to give this situation is unknowable. He admitted his �frustration� to Strader.

Speculation at the moment � as indicated by numerous media reports � is that one team is headed for Winnipeg, possibly even by next season. The two teams under consideration right now appear to be Phoenix and Atlanta.

It�s a difficult predicament for Thrashers fans. Somewhere � either in the desert or in Georgia � fans who care passionately about their team may well lose it. If the Coyotes� deal is ultimately scuttled, it might well save the Thrashers for a time, but they would still need a buyer.

It�s one of those, �Ask not for whom the bell tolls� situations. One possible buyer for the Thrashers would seem to be Hulsizer himself. If he does not end up owning the Coyotes, Hulsizer still seems interested in owning an NHL team.

He told Toronto�s Globe and Mail on Monday �We have been approached by other teams, yes.� However, he said he is not pursuing those teams �right now because we love Arizona.�

The Sporting News reported that Hulsizer �is not on Atlanta�s radar.� One has to wonder: Not right now or not yet? He would not exactly endear himself to Bettman by leaving a jilted lover at the altar, so to speak, by undercutting Phoenix�s potential sale.

The Thrashers� situation seems somewhat desperate, but perhaps they might have slightly more time on their side right now than the Coyotes do.

And, hey, at least they still have meaningful games to play.