Talks surrounding an eventual sale of the Montreal Canadiens are building to a final crescendo: As of the close of business yesterday, all formal offers were to be lodged with the investment bank steering the bidding process.
According to sources close to the century-old NHL club, the latest deadline for submissions - there have been several to this point - is an indication the field of would-be owners will be winnowed down to two or three over the next 10 days.
"We're not quite at the end of the road yet, but we're getting close," said the source, who didn't discount the possibility of last-minute bids later this month.
Because the players have all been required to sign detailed non-disclosure agreements, it's not clear how many formal bids have been received. Media reports suggest there could be as many as six.
Two Quebec-based groups have stepped forward to make their interest public: A consortium led by Quebecor Inc. chief executive officer Pierre Karl Péladeau (which includes singer Céline Dion and her impresario husband René Angélil) and another spearheaded by members of the Molson brewing family.
"We have assembled a very solid and credible group of investors and financial institutions as part of our offer," Geoffrey E. Molson, a 38-year-old Molson Coors Brewing Co. executive who currently sits on the Canadiens board, said in a statement issued yesterday.
"We think our offer has all the ingredients to be well-received by the potential seller and the National Hockey League."
And Canadian-born investment-fund honcho W. Graeme Roustan - whose privately held Roustan Capital group owns the Bauer Hockey equipment company, among other holdings - is also in the running. Sources describe the Florida-based Roustan's interest as "very serious."
Financial sources told The Globe and Mail that each of the three known bidders has already secured at least $200-million in bank financing to help push a deal through.
According those familiar with the process, Péladeau's group is expected to make the richest opening bid, in excess of $420-million.
But sources suggest a Molson family bid - which is believed to be supported by telecom behemoth BCE Inc. - could carry the day, even if it is closer to $400-million, given the family's long-standing NHL ties and the fact Molson Coors already owns 19.9 per cent of the team.
The Quebecor-owned Journal de Montreal reported three other groups have made an offer: an unidentified consortium of local business figures, an unidentified United States-based former cable television magnate, and an unidentified friend of current Canadiens majority owner George Gillett.
It's expected BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., which was retained earlier this year to solicit interest in the NHL team, the Bell Centre arena and Gillett's concert promotion company, will shortly open an auction process among the top bidders.
"I'd imagine there will be a couple more rounds of bidding over the coming couple of weeks. That's certainly what we expect," a source in one of the prospective groups said.
Gillett, who bought the Bell Centre and 80.1 per cent of the Canadiens in 2001 for $180-million (U.S.), stands to walk away with roughly $200-million once arena debt and other liabilities are factored in.