When Research In Motion co-chief executive Jim Balsillie offered to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move the NHL team to Hamilton, Anthony LeBlanc was so excited he sent his old boss a letter of congratulations.
But soon Mr. LeBlanc, a former RIM executive, started looking more closely at the Coyotes together with a couple of hockey-loving friends from the investment world. Yesterday, Mr. LeBlanc and his group submitted a letter of intent, offering to buy the Coyotes for $150-million (U.S.) and keep the team in Phoenix.
"Southern Ontario can support another [NHL]team - there's absolutely no question, and I think Jim would be a tremendous owner," Mr. LeBlanc said from his home in Ottawa. "It's just we don't think that Phoenix is the right team because we think there's a real savvy business case that can be had in Phoenix."
Mr. LeBlanc said he loved his years at RIM and considers Mr. Balsillie a mentor and a good friend. But the Coyotes purchase "is one of those rare opportunities that come up that we're pretty excited about."
His main partners are Keith McCullough and Daryl Jones, a couple of Canadians who played hockey together at Yale University and now run an investment firm in New Haven, Conn., called Research Edge. "We're all good Canadian boys. The idea of owning an NHL franchise is a dream."
Mr. LeBlanc, 39, left RIM last year after nine years with the company, where he was vice-president of global sales. At first, he pursued a few investment ideas and launched another hockey venture - bringing an Ontario Hockey League team to his home town of Thunder Bay. Mr. McCullough, who is also from Thunder Bay, heard about the OHL idea and offered to help, along with Mr. Jones.
They were on track with those plans until May 5, when Coyotes' majority owner Jerry Moyes put the club into bankruptcy protection and announced a $212.5-million deal with Mr. Balsillie. Mr. LeBlanc wished Mr. Balsillie well and even joined his "Make it Seven" campaign.
But as Mr. Balsillie's purchase got bogged down in Arizona bankruptcy court, Mr. LeBlanc and the others began thinking about the Coyotes. Their break came in late June when Judge Redfield T. Baum ordered an auction on Aug. 5 for bidders interested in keeping the club in Phoenix. The judge said if that auction didn't produce a decent offer, another one will be held Sept. 10 for bidders, such as Mr. Balsillie, who want to relocate the club.
Mr. LeBlanc and the others dropped the OHL plans and sent a team of analysts to Phoenix to review the Coyotes' books. They also met with Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes' coach and a co-owner, as well as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and officials from the City of Glendale, the Phoenix suburb that financed the arena where the Coyotes play. They even came up with a name for their enterprise, Ice Edge Holdings, and launched a website.
The group won the blessing of Mr. Bettman, and is hopeful of reaching a deal with the city on a new arena lease. It has also asked Mr. Gretzky to remain as coach and a part owner.
"They have the greatest asset that you could ever want in a hockey owner in Wayne Gretzky and he is not being utilized and he knows it," Mr. LeBlanc said. "Wayne really, really wants to keep this team in Phoenix."
The deadline for bids was yesterday and so far the group's only competition is from Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox. He has offered $148-million for the Coyotes and also wants a new arena lease.
There's no guarantee Mr. LeBlanc and his group will be able to finalize their bid or win the auction. They have only offered a letter of intent, not an official offer, but they hope the judge will see that they are serious. Sources familiar with the auction are skeptical about their plans and their ability to get a bid together for the Aug. 5 auction.
Even if they win, running the Coyotes won't be easy. The club's attendance has been dismal and according to court filings, it hasn't made money since moving from Winnipeg in 1996. Last season, the Coyotes lost $67.1-million.
Mr. LeBlanc believes the club can be successful. He cites small changes such as charging for parking, putting a restaurant in the arena and changing marketing tactics as first steps. "We honestly feel that with low-hanging fruit we can get this thing to within a grasp of being a zero-deficit operation within a year to two years maximum," he said. The city's economy is showing signs of life, he added, and Canadians are snapping up foreclosed properties by the hundreds.
Mr. LeBlanc and the others haven't forgotten Thunder Bay. If they win the auction, the group plans to move the Coyotes' farm team, the San Antonio Rampage, from Texas to Thunder Bay and help build a new arena.
For now though, Mr. LeBlanc and the others are finalizing their offer and lining up more investors.
"We truly want to make this thing successful and we're excited about the opportunity. I think our enthusiasm can be a little bit infectious at times."