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If any of the Phoenix Coyotes needed a notice that the team's financial troubles directly affect them, it came when training camp opened on the weekend and head coach Wayne Gretzky was nowhere to be found.

Gretzky remained absent from Arena yesterday for the first of the Coyotes on-ice workouts because his contract as part-owner and head coach, which calls for a salary of more than $8-million (all currency U.S.) a year, remains in limbo along with the fate of the Coyotes. While the NHL wants Gretzky to sign a new, reduced contract if it should be the winning bidder for the team, it has officially refused to pick up his current contract in its purchase offer to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

While a league lawyer said in court last Friday that Gretzky's status is the subject of "delicate negotiations," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league has nothing to do with his absence. Coyotes general manager Don Maloney hopes Gretzky will report to training camp this week. On Saturday, Maloney said Gretzky decided to stay home "for a few days" and evaluate his options.

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"There's many dynamics here," Maloney said yesterday. "He's a good man, he's worked hard for this club. We'll have to see how the days unfold."

Judge Redfield T. Baum has to decide between the NHL's $140-million bid and one for $242.5-million from Jim Balsillie. Balsillie's offer includes a payment of at least $8-million to Gretzky, whose claim is at least $20-million and includes money he agreed to defer last season when Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes stopped paying the bills and the NHL had to step in.

Gretzky has already agreed to a pay cut in one scenario. He joined the group of Canadian and American businessmen known as Ice Edge Holdings LLC, which was interested in bidding for the team but could not reach an arena-lease agreement with Glendale in time. The group could still buy the team from the NHL if the league's bid is accepted.

Ice Edge had an agreement with Gretzky on a contract that called for a salary of $2-million per year. However, it is likely the agreement also had a revenue- or profit-sharing component.

Concerning the sale of the Coyotes, Judge Baum has said only that he will have a decision before the NHL's regular season starts Oct. 1. Most observers feel he will pick the NHL's bid.

Once all of the team's major creditors sided with the NHL (the committee of unsecured creditors was the last to fall in line), it gave the judge the chance to avoid setting a legal precedent that could affect all professional sports if he picked Balsillie, whose offer is conditional on moving the team to Hamilton. The creditors urged the judge to pick the NHL's bid because they felt it would mean they would get paid faster because the league is sure to appeal and ask for a stay of the sale if Balsillie wins.

Balsillie has one last chance, albeit a remote one, that a major player may switch sides in the fight. Councillors from the city of Glendale, where the Coyotes play, are to decide tomorrow if they will accept $50-million from Balsillie in exchange for dropping their claims for damages if the arena lease is broken. Lawyers for Glendale have already said in court the city supports the NHL bid even though the league would not guarantee to keep the team in Glendale.

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In the meantime, the Coyotes players were left working out under associate coach Ulf Samuelsson. They were also left wondering who will coach them on top of their big worry - just where will they be playing a year from now. Even if the NHL wins the bidding, is almost certain the Coyotes will not survive in suburban Glendale for the long term.

"It's something that we really have no say over," team captain Shane Doan told The Arizona Republic. "You wish that it might have been settled a little bit earlier."

Yesterday, Maloney said he realizes most experts rate the team's on-ice prospects as poorly as their outlook off the ice. But he was defiantly optimistic.

"I legitimately think we have an opportunity to get to the playoffs," he said. "I know where we're going to be picked, preseason-wise. It's just inevitable given the unrest out there. Everybody's going to think we're going to be a terrible hockey team and I don't buy it for a minute."

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