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Editorial Cartoon by Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)
Editorial Cartoon by Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)

Stephen Brunt

Are Winnipeg's NHL prayers about to be answered? Add to ...

The National Hockey League must understand now that it no longer has a dog in this fight.

City of Glendale, Ariz., v. Goldwater Institute? Doesn't really matter. They will be battling that one out, to the enrichment of many a lawyer, long after big-league hockey has disappeared from the Valley of the Sun.

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As you may know by now, reports circulated over the weekend that Glendale is preparing to sue the conservative advocacy group for astronomical sums in alleged damages, accusing it of conspiring to kill the municipal bond issue with which Glendale hoped to pay Matthew Hulsizer to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes and keep them in the Jobing.com arena.

Step back even a few inches and the absurdity of this situation is obvious.

There is no groundswell of public opinion in Arizona one way or another over the fate of the hockey team, or the fate of Glendale's ill-advised decision to go all in on the value of professional sports to the community. Even if Goldwater was in the business of partisan electoral politics - which, strictly speaking, it is not - there would be precious little for it to gain here.

So why, or with whom, Goldwater might conspire to push a moribund hockey team out of Arizona and into Manitoba remains a puzzle. As in most instances, the simpler explanation makes more sense: Obsessed as it is with government waste and what it perceives to be misspent tax dollars, Goldwater objected to a handout that it argues violates the "gift clause" statute in the state constitution.

From day one, Goldwater has been suggesting as much, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the arena lease to actually be signed. But still the Glendale politicians, who must be right up there with the most obtuse in North America, opted to gamble that there would be no 11th-hour intervention. They had legal opinions to back up their claim that the arrangement with Hulsizer was legal, although if you read the actual bond offering, you learn that those opinions are predicated on the veracity of consultants' reports about potential parking revenues. But the politicians' core belief must have been that when push came to shove and a deal seemed imminent, Goldwater would simply walk away.

That's a bad bet to make when you're playing against zealots.

So all that's left is the bleating, and some fabricated estimates of the economic impact of losing the Coyotes. ($500-million? Come on. Even the folks in the business of spinning crazy numbers to try to justify crazy public investment in sport with bogus multiplier effects would have a hard time coming up with a number like that based on a hockey team that plays 41 sparsely attended regular-season home games a year.)

The lawsuit, if it is indeed ever filed, is going to take time, and it's going to be messy, and neither time nor mess are things the NHL governors can tolerate any longer without having to again reach into their own pockets. So anywhere NHL hockey was being played this past weekend, the chatter among reporters and agents and team officials was that the announcement of the Coyotes' relocation to Winnipeg was both inevitable and imminent.

Perhaps there's one last twist remaining, though right now, it is hard to imagine what that might be.

In any case, let's skip straight to the next stage, which will be the apportioning of blame.

Glendale? It'll obviously blame the evil Goldwater Institute. The Goldwater Institute? It'll blame Glendale for going against state law.

The NHL? Given all the tall tales spun by commissioner Gary Bettman over the past three years, there are plenty of options, plenty of potential scapegoats, but here's betting the league ignores the current mess and the current players and lays this whole thing at the feet of poor old Jerry Moyes, who took the Coyotes into bankruptcy, and by extension, at the feet of Jim Balsillie, going all the way back to the aborted Pittsburgh Penguins sale.

It's a good story. Easier to sell than the failure of NHL hockey in a sunbelt market. Easier to explain than how, in order to protect a territorial-rights clause in its own constitution that may or may not be legal, the NHL jumped through hoops to block a guy who would have overpaid for the Coyotes (or the Predators, or the Pens) and written Glendale a cheque for $50-million, all for the privilege of claiming a small slice of the world's best hockey market, currently the exclusive domain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saving the league considerable expense and considerable embarrassment in the process.

No slight to Winnipeg, where many a prayer is about to be answered. But given all that's happened, all the damage done, does anyone really believe this is the better outcome?

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