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Don't take alternate bids for Coyotes at face value

If David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski are indeed interested in buying the Phoenix Coyotes and keeping them alive in Arizona - as suggested in an affidavit sworn by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman - it would come as a huge surprise to many who know them.

That's because the owners of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts have been actively pursuing a very different agenda: Landing an NHL team that could be uprooted and relocated to a new arena in the Greater Toronto Area.

Cynamon and Sokolowski have been quietly fleshing out that plan for months now, and have discussed it, at least informally, with both the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and with the NHL commissioner.

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As recently as March, Sokolowski met with Bettman at the NHL's New York offices.

And the two Toronto businessmen have met with potential investors and sketched out the design for an NHL-ready arena as part of a larger development on the federally-owned lands at Downsview in the city's north end, dubbed "Hockeyland."

They have also recently explored the possibility of purchasing at least one other struggling, portable NHL franchise.

Now, according to Bettman's sworn statement, Cynamon and Sokolowski have experienced a remarkable epiphany and are ready to bid for the chance to own and operate a franchise thousands of kilometres from home which has lost in the neighbourhood of $100-million (U.S.) over the last four seasons.

Asked about that this past weekend, Sokolowski refused to comment. "Out of respect for the process, we are referring all questions to the league," he said.

Well, perhaps it's possible. Perhaps the Argos owners suddenly see possibilities in Phoenix that are invisible to just about everyone else - including Paul Kelly, the head of the NHL Players' Association, who opined this past week that it was time to "pull the plug" on the Coyotes.

But there is also a far more plausible explanation: Cynamon and Sokolowski believe that by allowing their names to be placed before the bankruptcy court among those who "have indicated an interest in operating the franchise in Phoenix," they can curry favour with the league and gain the inside track on a second Toronto team, whether it's the Coyotes, another ailing club or an expansion franchise.

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If that's the true story, Bettman is being at the very least misleading, if not disingenuous, by suggesting Cynamon and Sokolowski have any real interest in operating in Phoenix - beyond perhaps swallowing losses for a season or two before being granted permission to move to Ontario.

And there's no mistaking what Bettman is saying in his affidavit, which reads, in part: "These local expressions of interest in owning the Coyotes, as well as the passion of the community fan base as evidenced by the 'Save the Coyotes' campaign and the City of Glendale's willingness to participate in enhanced partnership initiatives designed to improve the team's performance in the state-of-the-art Arena, all indicate that relocation may well be unnecessary and is certainly premature for the 2009-10 season."

So let's get this straight: The NHL believes wholeheartedly that the Coyotes can survive in Glendale and is absolutely opposed to the team being sold and relocated to Southern Ontario, but is now open to offers for the team from individuals who the commissioner knows have been planning to do exactly that.

Makes you wonder about the reality of the three other "bids" mentioned in Bettman's affidavit from Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Coyotes minority partner John Breslow, and an unnamed "Phoenix businessman."

How legitimate are they, and what's the real long-term strategy behind them?

Makes you wonder about the NHL's actual commitment to the Phoenix market and those loyal fans Bettman loves to talk about. It certainly seems as though that might be lip service, to be abandoned just as soon as they win the current court battle.

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Makes you wonder just how desperate Bettman and the league have become to stop Canadian tycoon Jim Balsillie from doing on his terms what they seem willing to allow someone else to do on theirs (though the Maple Leafs might have other ideas).

The plot thickens.

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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