PHOENIX - A U.S. bankruptcy court judge has accelerated the schedule for determining whether a Canadian businessman can buy the Coyotes and move them to southern Ontario over the objection of the NHL.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Judge Redfield T. Baum called the relocation issue "the 10,000-pound elephant in the room" and said it needed to be resolved quickly.
Baum set a hearing for June 9 and promised a ruling shortly thereafter. All briefs and declarations must be submitted by June 5. The relocation hearing had been scheduled for June 22, but Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie has said he will withdraw his $212.5 million offer if the sale is not completed by the end of June.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league would appeal if it loses at the bankruptcy court level, but he expressed confidence that an appeal won't be necessary.
"We're confident in what the law says," Daly said, "and the law is pretty clear with respect to our rights to control both the identity of our owners and the location of our franchises."
The NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA have filed papers asking the judge to respect the NHL's rules, expressing concern that an adverse ruling would serve as a dangerous precedent undermining the operation of professional sports leagues.
Attorneys for Balsillie and Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes argue that blocking the move violates antitrust law and that Baum has the authority to force the move under bankruptcy statutes.
The judge set two tentative dates for the auction of the team, depending on how he rules on the relocation issue - June 22 if Balsillie gets his way and Sept. 10 if the NHL prevails.
The NHL, which wants to find a buyer to keep the team in Glendale, Ariz., welcomed speeding up the process, saying that having the franchise in limbo is further damaging an already bankrupt business that lost $74 million over the past two years.
"This is a franchise that obviously needs to improve its revenue streams to be viable," Daly said outside the courthouse after the hearing. "So this is an important time period right now and that's why today's ruling in terms of moving up the date for determination on the relocation issue is a good ruling."
The city of Glendale also is fighting the move, contending that the Coyotes cannot break their lease to play in Jobing.com Arena without paying a significant penalty. Baum said the city's concerns also would depend on the relocation ruling.
While Balsillie has applied to the NHL to buy the Coyotes, and says he will file an application by Monday to move the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario, Baum said it was obvious the league opposes the Canadian's plans.
League attorney Tony Clark told the judge that the NHL is immediately accepting bids to buy the team and keep it in Glendale. If the NHL wins the relocation fight, then the league's owners would approve the sale of the team before the bankruptcy court auction in September.
Any sale to keep the team in Arizona would be contingent on reworking the lease agreement with the city of Glendale, Daly said.