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Phoenix Coyotes' Shane Doan, right, celebrates a win over the San Jose Sharks with teammate Ilya Bryzgalov (30), of Russia, after the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, April 8, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 4-3, and with the win clinched a playoff spot. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Ross D. Franklin)
Phoenix Coyotes' Shane Doan, right, celebrates a win over the San Jose Sharks with teammate Ilya Bryzgalov (30), of Russia, after the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, April 8, 2011, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 4-3, and with the win clinched a playoff spot. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) (Ross D. Franklin)

Stephen Brunt

Midas touch unnecessary for Winnipeg to get Coyotes Add to ...

Oh there is smoke, great billowing plumes of smoke, and yes, that probably means what it usually does.

Either they've found a new pope, or something's burning out there.

A couple of the fellows at Sportsnet reporting that multiple National Hockey League sources say the Phoenix Coyotes are likely bound for Winnipeg next season. Senator John McCain and Wayne Gretzky, both speaking publicly, both with a rooting interest in a different outcome, and both sounding extremely pessimistic about the franchise's future in Arizona.

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American Hockey League president Dave Andrews acknowledging that there have been discussions about relocating the Manitoba Moose. The Winnipeg Free Press reporting that a season's ticket drive is imminent, which if successful would cement a deal for the Coyotes. And the Hockey News laying out the terms under which Mark Chipman and company have agreed to purchase the franchise from the NHL, once the Glendale bond issue is officially declared dead.

All of that news breaking over the course of 48 hours strongly suggests that the Coyotes' final playoff game this spring will be their final game, period, based in the Valley of the Sun.

And yes, one might well say we've heard that before over the course of the past couple of years, except that there is one crucial difference this time around.

Some of those stories seem to be coming straight out of Manitoba, where until now the potential new owners of the Coyotes have been moving on little cat feet, making damned sure that they don't make any noise or generate any headlines.

Wouldn't want to upset the powers at the NHL head office. Wouldn't want to appear too eager, and give them an excuse to look elsewhere.

Of course, truth is, there is no elsewhere.

But you can't blame them for being extra careful, even though it's a myth that speaking and acting out of turn was what cost Jim Balsillie an NHL team. Balsillie was rebuffed not because he did things like selling season's tickets in Hamilton without commissioner Gary Bettman's permission. He was blocked because he wanted to relocate a franchise within territory guaranteed to the Toronto Maple Leafs (and Buffalo Sabres) under the NHL constitution. (Anyone who doubts that need only to listen to Brian Burke this week when he was asked about the possibility of a second Toronto team: he sounded rather certain that it was the Leafs' decision to make.)

Now, though, there are leaks springing everywhere, which is exactly what figured to happen when a possibility morphed into an inevitability. Though Winnipeg is certainly not the preferred option of Bettman and the league's owners, all signs point to them finally moving on, acknowledging defeat, bidding adieu to Matthew Hulsizer and the Glendale municipal government, eating some crow, and heading back whence they came in those heady days when the NHL was outgrowing little Canadian markets.

It certainly won't be spun that way, especially since there's an easy scapegoat now in the Goldwater Institute, as though those pesky libertarians were the disease, rather than a symptom.

Just to avoid confusion: the Coyotes won't be leaving because someone threatened to sue over a municipal bond issue which may or may not be legal under Arizona law. They will be leaving because of the single unassailable truth that has been lurking behind this entire exercise - there is no one on earth prepared to invest their own money to keep the team where it is because to do so would mean absorbing tens of millions of dollars in losses in perpetuity. And the reason that's the case is that there aren't enough people in the Phoenix area willing to spend enough money on big-league professional hockey as an entertainment option to make a franchise viable there.

In the end, grand strategies for NHL growth are irrelevant. So is the importance of Phoenix as a television market.

Somebody has to be willing to pay the bills. Nobody has, at least since Jerry Moyes took the Coyotes into bankruptcy. No one is willing in Kansas City, either, or in Las Vegas, or in any of those other fantasy destinations.

And now that smoke on the horizon is telling us that it is Winnipeg's turn - again.

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