Gary Bettman and the NHL will celebrate the new year with their most feel-good event, the annual outdoor game, but once the warm-and-fuzzies fade from Fenway Park, the commissioner will have lots of fires to put out.
Thanks to the recession and "the usual suspects," as a banker of our acquaintance put it, Bettman can expect 2010 to be another year in which he makes like the fellow who keeps a dozen or so plates spinning on sticks. The only difference from 2009 is that the Phoenix Coyotes may not be the plate on centre stage.
Oh, the Coyotes will still be a Class A migraine, since they are losing a good $5-million (all currency U.S.) a month that will be billed to the NHL until it completes the sale of the team to the group of businessmen known as Ice Edge Holdings LLC. But once Bettman convinced the governors at their annual meetings last week that those losses will come out of future NHL revenue and spare them from writing cheques, he kept that plate spinning.
But a couple of dark clouds - the New York Islanders and the Nashville Predators - are moving front and centre.
Islanders owner Charles Wang plans to use a $1-billion real-estate development around the team's arena to finance renovations to the Nassau Coliseum, but the idea has stalled over squabbles with the Town of Hempstead. Wang has threatened to move or sell his team if the town and Nassau County do not approve his huge project, which calls for 1.5 million square feet of retail and office space plus 2,300 residential units to be built on 77 acres around the Coliseum. He sees this as the only way to stem his team's losses of more than $20-million a year.
Most of the news concerns Wang's fight with the local politicians, some of whom want the project scaled back and/or offered to other developers. Wang said last week at the governors' meetings that the future of the Islanders is up to the local politicians, but an investment banker who knows the Long Island market well says that is not the owner's biggest problem.
"Who wants to finance this project even if it gets political approval?" said the banker, who requested anonymity. "The last thing Long Island needs is more office space."
It should also be noted there is a huge shopping mall a few miles from the Coliseum.
There is talk of keeping the Islanders in the area through moves to a new arena in Brooklyn or even in Queens, although nothing is certain.
The Predators, meanwhile, once again have Nashville politicians and bureaucrats worried about the financial viability of their owners. When it came out this month that David Freeman, the managing partner of the ownership group, had a $3.35-million tax lien put on his house by the Internal Revenue Service, questions arose about the financial guarantees the owners had to maintain with the city and CIT Group, which has its own bankruptcy woes but holds about $85-million in loans to the Predators.
The Nashville Sports Authority, the municipal group that oversees the arena and the agreement with the Predators, asked the owners to clarify their financial situation. Nobody felt too good when the owners refused, since an escape clause in the arena lease kicks in May 1 if the Predators have an average crowd of less than 14,000 a game (they were at 13,060 this week) and post a combined loss of $20-million on the team and the arena.
Word out of Nashville is that the other owners in Freeman's group will soon take a more active role because of his financial troubles. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said recently the league is not worried, which could be because Calgary oil tycoon Brett Wilson and perhaps one or two associates are waiting to put money into the team through the 27-per-cent interest held by a bankruptcy court as a result of last year's scandal, the William (Boots) Del Biaggio flameout.
If Bettman gets tired of this, he can turn to the Dallas Stars and owner Tom Hicks. The group of 40 bankers dealing with Hicks are hoping his Texas Rangers baseball team will be sold in the next 30 days to a group headed by Nolan Ryan so they can then untangle the Stars' mess.
Then there are the Atlanta Thrashers, the Tampa Bay Lightning …