PHOENIX - Hockey fans in Southern Ontario will have to wait more than a month to find out if plans to move the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes to the region can be made a reality after a ruling by a U.S bankruptcy court judge on Tuesday.
Judge Redfield T. Baum, presiding over the Coyotes' bankruptcy case, set a new hearing for June 22, when the league and Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes will give arguments about whether or not the franchise can be relocated as part of an agreement to purchase the team.
That will help determine exactly what potential purchasers, including Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, will be bidding on. Balsillie has made a US$212.5-million offer for the team, with the condition that he be allowed to move it to Hamilton.
"It seems like in large part that (the relocation) issue is driving the case right now," said Baum.
Referring to relocation as a "hot-button issue," the judge wasn't prepared to make an immediate decision on it - even though lawyers from the NHL suggested that he should.
He took note of the support the NHL received from the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball in statements filed to the court.
"It appears that this issue has attracted a lot of attention from folks who are concerned about it," said Baum.
Ultimately, both sides seemed happy with Baum's decision to settle the relocation issue before putting the team up for auction in the court.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says it will bring more "clarity" to the process while Richard Rodier - a representative for Balsillie - claims it gives his client a better chance to finally buy a team and move it to Hamilton.
"It makes the process more transparent than it otherwise might be," said Rodier. "There's a number of a stakeholders who should be able to see the process. Our point of view is that the people of southern Ontario and Canadian hockey fans generally need to be able to have a good look at how the NHL treats the relocation application and indeed how it treats its best customer by far."
Balsillie said in a statement that he was satisfied with Baum's stance settling the relocation issue.
"But let's be clear, I am moving forward," the statement continued. "I have tabled a comprehensive and attractive offer. I will also be filing formal applications to the NHL both for transfer of ownership and for relocation to Southern Ontario to my chosen Hamilton Copps Coliseum venue. I am being open and transparent about this as I've been from the beginning."
One thing the judge didn't establish was who is currently in control of the team.
Instead, he ordered the NHL and Moyes to enter into mediation and asked them to return to court on May 27 to provide a status update. Both sides claimed in court documents that they were in charge of the Coyotes.
"You guys are either going to mediate this or I'm going to rule on it," Baum said.
The judge said he ordered mediation because he wasn't interested in having the two sides continue putting so much effort into arguing over what is essentially a moot point.
"Why are we arguing about who has their hands on the steering wheel of a car that's going to be sold in 60 days?" Baum said.
The judge made it clear that a ruling needs to be made on whether the Coyotes can be relocated before an auction is held to sell the team.
The idea is to assure that the highest bidder comes forward - and that everyone knows exactly what they're bidding on.
It also means that someone else could come forward and offer more than what Balsillie has on the table.
"It's very important to try and keep the playing field as level as possible," said Baum.
Moyes has plunged more than $300 million into the Coyotes and stands to lose the majority of that investment even if Balsillie is allowed to purchase the team.
The trucking magnate has lived in the Phoenix area for the past 42 years and describes himself as an "accidental owner" of the Coyotes. He started as a small investor before increasing his stake to try and protect the investment, eventually purchasing the team from Steve Ellman.
He believes that Balsillie's bid will do the most to satisfy the team's creditors - a group he claims the league has little interest in.
Balsillie has aggressively sought support in Canada since making his bid on May 5. In addition to bringing in corporate sponsors and reaching out to fans through his website www.makeitseven.ca, he's also tried to outline his vision for another NHL team north of the border during a number of interviews.