Gretzky era finally starts for Phoenix

Posted: Friday, February 16, 2001

PHOENIX -- The Wayne Gretzky era began Thursday for the Phoenix Coyotes when the former hockey great and developer Steve Ellman acquired the team for $90 million.

The closing, delayed by financing complications, came the day of an NHL deadline and months after the sale was originally supposed to be completed. Ellman and Gretzky had been given two extensions to wrap up the purchase.

''This has been a very long, tough, frustrating journey,'' Ellman said Thursday night. ''We've arrived and we are thrilled to be part of the NHL.''

Ellman said his top priority will be to work on a new arena, starting with existing plans for a 17,500-seat building at the former Los Arcos Mall in Scottsdale.

Gretzky said he never had second thoughts about the deal, adding that Ellman told him up front it would be a lengthy process. He said he has not yet planned personnel moves or payroll cuts.

But he also disclosed plans to re-sign goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, bring former teammate Pat Conacher aboard to replace an assistant coach and reward forward Claude Lemieux, who signed with the Coyotes for the $150,000 minimum but expects $9 million over the next three years.

Former owner Richard Burke retained control and kept Gretzky out of the locker room until the closing, with approval of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Gretzky called that a disadvantage and said he, Ellman and team president Shawn Hunter would join the team in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday for his first meeting with the players.

''We've been on the outside looking in,'' Gretzky said. ''We weren't in the locker room. We purposely stayed away -- it's what Mr. Bettman wanted us to do, because he didn't want us to interfere in any way whatsoever. So we were unable to meet with anyone.''

Bettman brokered the deal to make sure the franchise stayed in Arizona.

''We look forward to working closely with Steve and Wayne and the city of Scottsdale on the construction of a new, state-of-the-art arena,'' he said.

Had the sale fallen through, Burke would have been free to keep the $26 million that the new owners paid in advance and sell to someone else. Trucking company executive Jerry Moyes made sure the deal was completed by stepping in as a partner last month.

''It's a relief that this is over,'' Burke said. ''I'm sure it is for everybody involved -- buyer, seller, employees and the fans. It went on way longer than people should have to put up with.''

Burke still owns the team's headquarters in Scottsdale and said he plans to rent the double-rink Ice Den to the Coyotes. Ellman said the amount of rent -- and whether the Coyotes stay on as tenants -- was subject to negotiation.

Ellman pegged the cost to acquire the franchise at $125 million, including the sale price, operating losses since July 1 and closing fees.

When Ellman ran into financing problems, there were reports that Microsoft founder Paul Allen might buy the team and move it to Portland, Ore.

The sale puts a Hall of Fame player with four Stanley Cup rings in charge of hockey operations for a club that hasn't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 1987.

One of Gretzky's first decisions involves getting something of value for a goalie before the March 13 trading deadline.

All-Star goalie Sean Burke is 34, and Khabibulin, six years younger, has not played in the NHL since April 1999 after refusing a $3 million-a-year contract with the Coyotes.

''I've said many times that I think Sean Burke has been maybe the MVP in the whole league,'' Gretzky said. ''He's been that good, game in and game out. He's been outstanding, but we realize that Khabibulin is a tremendous goaltender, and he's a player we'd like to sign.''

Gretzky also has to decide what to do with team scoring leaders Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, whose combined salaries make up one-third of the team's $39 million payroll.

GM Bobby Smith's future has been in question since Gretzky joined forces with Ellman in late May.

It was originally assumed that Smith would be fired, but he apparently earned Gretzky's respect by building a strong team on a relative shoestring budget -- and Smith must be paid the rest of his $2 million salary regardless. But he will have to answer to layers of authority, including vice president Cliff Fletcher.

''Cliff is my right arm,'' Gretzky said. ''That's why I hired him, and that's what I want him to do.''

There is still potential for snags because of the enmity between some Scottsdale city leaders and Ellman over the stalled redevelopment project at Los Arcos.

Ellman angered the City Council, which controls the life of a stadium district that could allot $197 million in public money for the new arena, by letting the project sit while trying to swing the purchase. That left half-razed mall buildings visible from one of Scottsdale's busiest intersections for nine months.

Ellman said an arena could be built quickly.

''We could have the arena open in 20 months from when the city gives me the permit to build,'' Ellman said. ''We've hired HOK, we've finished all the schematic drawings, we've cleared the portion of the site where the arena would be.''

Gretzky and Ellman represent the team's third change of ownership.

The former Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association joined the NHL in June 1979 under lawyer Barry Shenkarow.

He sold to Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern for $65 million in October 1995, and they moved the franchise to Phoenix the next summer. Burke, who bought out Gluckstern on Sept. 12, 1997, put the team on the market last winter, and he and Ellman agreed on terms on April 18.



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