PHOENIX - A U.S. bankruptcy court judge has accelerated the schedule for determining whether Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie can buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move the club to southern Ontario over the objection of the NHL.
At a hearing Wednesday, judge Redfield Baum called the relocation issue "the 10,000-pound elephant in the room" and said it needed to be resolved quickly.
He 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 Balsillie has said he will withdraw his US$212.5-million offer if the sale is not completed by the end of June.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league will appeal if it loses at the bankruptcy court level. But he expressed confidence that won't be necessary.
"We're confident in what the law says," he 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.
Lawyers for Balsillie and Jerry Moyes argue that blocking the move violates antitrust law and 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."