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Balsillie and NHL battle it out in Arizona bankruptcy court

The Canadian Press

9/3/2009 12:56:27 AM

PHOENIX -- Jim Balsillie will have to wait a few more days to learn if he can bid to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes.

A U.S. bankruptcy hearing adjourned Wednesday without a decision on whether the BlackBerry maker could take part in an Sept. 10 auction for the troubled NHL franchise. There was no immediate word on when Judge Redfield T. Baum will make his ruling, or when the next step in the protracted battle between Balsillie and the NHL will occur.

Baum also reserved his decision on the issue of whether the team should stay in Phoenix next season no matter who purchases the club. Balsillie's US$212.5-million bid for the Coyotes is contingent on moving the team to Hamilton.

If Balsillie was disappointed that his desire to own a NHL club has been stalled yet again, he hid his emotions well.

"I totally respect the court process," he said, looking crisp while talking to reporters in baking temperatures outside the courthouse. "Whatever he rules, and when ever he rules it, I am going to respect his rulings as I have in the past.

"I still think our bid is best by far the best for creditors, for fans, and the long-term viability of the team. All I wanted from the very beginning is a chance for a level-playing field, court-supervised auction where we could participate."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also was content to let the judge take his time.

"The process continues but we are getting closer to a culmination of these proceedings," said Bettman.

"As the judge indicated, a tremendous amount of paper and pleadings have been submitted. I'm sure the judge wants to be completely comfortable he's had ample opportunity to review everything and reflect on it appropriately."

While the two men spoke in civil tones in separate interviews, the undercurrent of dislike and mistrust between the league and Balsillie simmered just below the surface.

Bettman called the entire bankruptcy proceedings -- and Balsillie's attempt to buy the team -- "an attempt to circumvent our rules."

When asked if Balsillie could ever regain the trust of the other owners -- who voted 26-0 to reject him as a potential owner -- Bettman didn't hesitate.

"There is a lot of water under this bridge," Bettman said. "It seems like things continued to spiral in the wrong direction.

"I think the will of the board in that regard, and the view of the owners in that regard, has been crystal clear."

Asked about the trust issue, Balsillie wrapped himself in a Canadian flag.

"I'm not going to characterize what anybody said or the context they said it," he said. "All we want to be is a bidder, to really serve the fans of the best under-served hockey market in the world."

In the courtroom, Bettman and Balsillie sat behind their respective lawyers. Just a few feet separated the men but they did not acknowledge each other.

During the day-long hearing, the NHL defended its position not to accept Balsillie as a potential owner.

NHL lawyer Shepard Goldfein said the owners had concerns about Balsillie's character after his failed attempts to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

"This decision was made specifically due to his conduct with the NHL," said Goldfein. "It did not have to do with the other issues in his life."

Goldfein also called the vote by owners "unassailable."

But Balsillie lawyer Jeff Kessler argued the only reason the NHL doesn't want the team moved to Hamilton is the league is afraid of a lawsuit the Toronto Maple Leafs may file because of a team moving into Leafs' territory.

"God knows what they will sue for," said Kessler. "And the league does not want that battle."

Kessler said Balsillie could operate inside the NHL, even if he isn't liked by the other owners.

"Sports leagues do not need for their owners to love each other," he told the court.

Goldfein and Kessler were a contrast in styles.

Goldfein spoke in a level tone and usually stood still while addressing the court. Kessler was more animated. He waved his hands while talking and moved around.

Baum often prodded both men to make their point.

"Don't keep telling me a lot of what I've read a lot of," he snapped once.

The two sides also sparred over the issue of whether the Coyotes should remain in Phoenix for the 2009-2010 season.

Goldfein said moving the team now would make for a scheduling nightmare. He also said keeping the club in Phoenix would give the players' families some stability and allow the team to make some revenue from ticket sales.

Kessler agreed relocation at this late date does create problems, but they can be fixed.

"We have confidence if the league . . . were to work with us, every one of these obstacles would be overcome," he said.

Kessler said Balsillie would be willing to have the team play only part of the coming season in Hamilton if he gets the franchise.

Bettman, speaking outside the courtroom, called Balsillie's proposal "disrespectful of the game."

"Of all the things that were argued in there, that one seemed to strike a chord that showed a lack of respect for the game," he said.

The NHL -- which favours keeping the franchise in Phoenix for the time being -- has bid $140 million for the team.

Susan Freeman, another of Balsillie's lawyers, said it wasn't right for the NHL to want to buy the club while attempting to block her client.

"That's a flat-out conflict of interest," she said.

Balsillie has set a Sept. 14 deadline to complete his proposed purchase. Baum said in court the co-CEO of Research In Motion should reconsider that date.

Baum said that given all that has yet to be determined it was "reasonably probable" that he will not have ruled on all outstanding issues by Sept. 14.

Ice Edge Holdings, a group of American and Canadian businessmen, have also made a bid of $150 million for the team.