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Stephen Brunt

Buyer beware, especially in the NHL Add to ...


The principle is always buyer beware.

Still, it is easy enough to imagine Jerry Moyes as the kid on the midway, forking over his money firm in the belief that if he throws the ball just right, those milk bottles will surely fall and that fantastic stuffed animal will be his.

Then, they don't and he tries again, they don't, and he has to reach a little bit deeper for the coin, they don't, and the carny behind the counter - let's leave his identity to the imagination - says, 'Don't worry son, we've just adjusted the rules of the game to make it fair to everyone.'

He pays again and takes his chances and, thunk, the last bottle wobbles but won't go down, and now he's broke.

In a letter to the Arizona Republic yesterday, Moyes responded to the heat he's taking locally for trying to take the Phoenix Coyotes into bankruptcy (where if all goes as planned they would be purchased by Canadian tycoon Jim Balsillie and moved to Hamilton) by describing himself as an "accidental owner."

"I evolved from providing a small loan, to becoming primary lender, to being forced to take over the ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes. ... I got involved trying to help Glendale, which has been my hometown for 42 years. ... When Steve Ellman [the former owner of the Coyotes]was struggling to complete the financing for the purchase of the team, I was asked to guarantee a line of credit for $5-million [U.S.] which quickly grew to $30-million in guarantees to the bank lender and the National Hockey League."

A guy who made a significant fortune in the trucking business (now itself falling victim to the economic crisis) stuck a toe into professional hockey to help someone else out, to support his hometown and maybe with dreams of making a few bucks and enjoying the minor celebrity that comes with sports ownership. Whether or not he actually liked the game, someone sold him on the idea that the NHL was on the rise, that a revenue bonanza lay just around the corner.

He was sucked in deeper and deeper, spending to protect his own investment, hanging on longer than any of the other three owners during the Coyotes' 16-year history in Phoenix. He hunkered down for the lost lockout season of 2004-05 in the belief the new system that emerged would make teams like his profitable.

Instead, in the four post-lockout seasons, the Coyotes lost close to $100-million, though during the last of those, Moyes had stopped paying the bills.

He is in for something close to $300-million now. No doubt the NHL leadership had been promising Moyes for at least a year that a white knight was coming, who would buy the team, clear up the debts, and no one would be the wiser. But in the last few weeks, Moyes finally started running a little low on both faith and funds, started to think the game was fixed against him, started to feel trapped and desperate, so he found a saviour on his own.

It's not so hard to understand why he might have chosen the $212-million Balsillie option over the offer it is believed the league was about to deliver from Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, estimated at about $130-million.

In bankruptcy, Moyes would surrender his $200-million stake in the franchise but could at least hope to recoup some of the $100-million plus in personal loans he has made to keep the franchise solvent.

Under the Balsillie proposal (number crunching courtesy of Tom Mayenknecht, the Vancouver-based sports business commentator who is host to The Sports Market on Team 1040), Moyes would get back as much as 90 cents on the dollar from the money he lent to the team, or about 30 cents on the dollar of his overall investment.

Under the deal it is believed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were about to deliver, Moyes would have received about nine cents on the dollar for his loan, or about three cents on the dollar for his combined loan and ownership stake.

That difference seems worth the embarrassment, seems worth being hammered in the league's legal filings, being cast as a double-dealing backstabber who was disloyal to the NHL and disloyal to his fellow owners. At a certain point, you've got to think about the kids' inheritance, if not survival, think about saving your own skin.

On the flip side, it's an interesting test of how the NHL treats its own.

Moyes kept hockey alive in Valley of the Sun all by himself for the past six years. He bought in to the program. He believed what he was told. He got creamed.

In the end, they are now more than happy to bid him adieu, his bank account considerably lightened, to allow him to take one more for the team so they can keep Balsillie out.

There's a lesson there, if you're an NHL owner in a market struggling for survival. However they treat the least of their partners, some day that's how they'll treat you.

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