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Bettman accuses think tank of 'game-playing'

A visibly upset NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took dead aim at the Goldwater Institute Tuesday, blaming the conservative think tank for scuttling the swift and tidy sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer.

In a press conference at Arena, the commissioner said he requested a meeting with the Goldwater Institute during an impromptu trip to Arizona, but was denied and offered a joint press conference instead. That wasn't palatable to Bettman, who said he wouldn't set a deadline to complete a sale to Hulsizer because it would allow Goldwater to "tough it out" until the deal is dead.

"This situation is far too serious for such game-playing," Bettman said of the Goldwater counteroffer. "Time is running out, and we're getting close to the end."

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The Goldwater Institute has sent letters to potential investors and bond-rating agencies informing them that it might sue the city of Glendale, Ariz., which owns the arena, should its deal with Hulsizer proceed because the terms could violate the "gift clause" in Arizona's constitution. The city, in turn, has threatened to sue Goldwater in what has become a legal stare-down.

Proceeds from the city's $100-million (all currency U.S.) bond offering would be given to Hulsizer in exchange for parking spaces, and to complete his $170-million purchase of the club.

Bettman's offensive suggests he still believes the sale can go through, and he all but dared the think tank to file a lawsuit. He said the bonds could be sold at a higher interest rate, which would cost the city more money.

"I'm not sure that [Goldwater]even thinks that they have a bona fide lawsuit," Bettman said. "But the longer they can perpetuate this and cloud the bond market, the more likely … they get their way without having to test it in court."

In a statement released Tuesday, Goldwater chief executive officer Darcy Olsen said that Hulsizer has agreed to a public meeting, but that the institute has not met with any of the parties this week.

"Whatever the outcome, we continue to hope that all parties will respect the [state]constitution and render legal action unnecessary," Olsen wrote.

Goldwater has questioned whether the Coyotes even own some 5,500 parking spaces that would be sold to the city under the terms of the Hulsizer-Glendale deal, but Bettman said the institute has that information and that its position is a "smokescreen."

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"I am told their questions are answered," he said.

Glendale councillor Phil Lieberman, who has been in office for 20 years and is one of three opponents (on a council of seven) of the Hulsizer deal, said Mayor Elaine Scruggs has not provided enough information to the public throughout the process and that she is attempting to "stuff this down taxpayers' throats" because the city has no Plan B.

"I may sue the city in attempt to find out," Lieberman said.

Meanwhile, Hulsizer said he will not change the agreement he has with Glendale as part of any 11th-hour attempt to keep the Coyotes from moving, but also warned that time is running out.

"I am prepared to honour my deal, which is lawful," Hulsizer said in an e-mail message. "It's a free market, so if someone else wants to step in they should."

Hulsizer was responding to a report in the Phoenix Business Journal that a last-ditch effort to save the sale is in the works.

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The Journal reported Tuesday afternoon that the revised plan would lessen the city's exposure via a bond sale in an attempt to get Goldwater off its back, while asking that Hulsizer and the NHL board of governors kick in more money. But Hulsizer said he never heard of such a plan and would not be willing to pay more than he already agreed to if a plan exists.

NHL sources have long maintained Bettman cannot reduce the sale price of the Coyotes. He promised the NHL governors in December of 2009 that they would get all of the money back they poured into the financially crippled franchise after the league bought it out of bankruptcy in October of 2009.

"Gary absolutely cannot go back to the governors for more money," one NHL governor said recently.

If the bond issue fails to go through, which is looking more likely by the hour, Bettman's only alternative might be to sell the Coyotes to True North Sports and Entertainment, which plans to move the team to Winnipeg.

At this point, it appears the fate of the municipal bonds will be known within 10 days. If so, it is believed the NHL will make a decision then on whether to sell to True North rather than draw the process out even further.

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