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Campbell's Cuts: NHL facing glut of potential for-sale teams

Jobing.com Arena is home of the Phoenix Coyotes...at least for the time being. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Jobing.com Arena is home of the Phoenix Coyotes...at least for the time being. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Gary Bettman earns about $8 million a year as commissioner of the NHL. That’s as much or more than roughly 98.6 percent of the players earned last season. But then again, Bettman probably works harder than the vast majority of players whose job it is to show up at the rink and give their best for a couple of hours each day.

You see, a big part of Bettman’s job is to ensure the league has as much stable ownership as possible. That way, franchise values remain high and the fellows who write the checks are happy. If there is a sag in ownership in a market, Bettman is intimately involved in every aspect of securing a new owner.

Even if it means battling so hard to keep the Phoenix Coyotes that even when you win, you lose. The ownership situation, as we all know, is a complete mess in the desert, so much so that Ice Edge is back in the picture and could be the new owner of the team if the City of Glendale agrees to a number of concessions that would cover Ice Edge’s operating losses.

Nice deal if you can get it, eh? Build a rink for a team, then get held hostage by it. As was first reported by THN.com in March, Phoenix faces the prospect of caving to NHL/Ice Edge/Jerry Reinsdorf or losing their major tenant to Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who already has a memorandum of agreement to buy the Coyotes and move them to Winnipeg if a local solution can’t be found.

(THN.com has been told, however, that at least if Ice Edge is involved and gets its concessions, its cockamamie scheme to play a handful of games in Saskatoon to offset the loss of revenues will be scrapped.)

But you have to wonder how many more proverbial rabbits Bettman can pull out of his hockey helmet. I mean, you can only stumble over so many Jeff Vinik’s in the world and convince them to risk their wealth on the shaky prospect of NHL ownership.

Bettman and Vinik met at this year’s Winter Classic and in the next few months, Bettman convinced Vinik– a hedge fund manager from Boston and a part owner of the Boston Red Sox – to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now that Vinik is in control of the Lightning, he’s getting a nice glimpse of what a mess things are there. In fact, sources maintain that he has offered the CEO job to five people and they have all turned him down.

If rumblings are correct, however, Bettman is going to have to come up with a lot more Jeff Viniks in the near and long-term future if he wants to clean up all the messes that exist. Depending upon with whom you speak, almost one-third of the teams in the league either is or soon will be put up for sale. And some of the markets are surprising.

We all know about the Coyotes, the Dallas Stars and the Atlanta Thrashers, but if speculation is to be believed, Bettman will have to brace himself for a slew of other owners who will be looking to get out of NHL ownership in the next little while. And if it’s true, it also proves there are even billionaires out there who get tired of watching their cash continually get sucked into a money-losing vortex.

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The first spot is Los Angeles, where it’s believed the Kings will likely go up for auction sometime in the near future. We know what you’re thinking. That’s to pave the way for Kings owner Philip Anschutz to move a team into his building in Kansas City, but it turns out he’s apparently just getting tired of losing money.

The other spot where there are rumblings of an ownership change is St. Louis, a team that appears to be on the right track after bottoming out a couple of seasons ago. The Nashville Predators are looking for a cash infusion in the way of investors and there are signs the Carolina Hurricanes and even the New Jersey Devils might be for sale in the near future.

The problem is that almost all of those teams lose money. That, in and of itself, is a problem, but business people also like to talk about “cost of capital,” which is the cost you bear by having your money tied up in ventures that don’t make anything. So assuming the cost of capital is 10 percent, an owner who has his money tied up in an NHL team is losing the opportunity to use that money to invest in something that will give him a better return, plus he has to absorb the operating losses, which, in many cases, are between $20 million and $30 million a season.

Another situation that bears watching is the New York Islanders. Reports that owner Charles Wang is ready to walk away from the franchise appear to be a little premature, but there is little doubt he is running out of patience. The Lighthouse Project, which would have given the Islanders a new arena and revitalized the area, looks like it will be scaled back considerably if it even sees the light of day.

Wang has lost millions over the past 10 years and might not be willing to wait another 10 years to get a new building. Waiting in the wings is New York Mets owner Jeffrey Wilpon, who could buy the team and move it to a new arena near the Mets’ new Citi Field.

So, if Bettman has dark rings around his eyes the next time you see him, you’ll know why.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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