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WILL ICE AGE HIT PORTLAND? NHL RUMORS SWIRL

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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Officials deny expansion, relocation talks - for now

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mike Johnston coaches the Portland Winterhawks, who play in a market and arena (Moda Center) considered a good fit for the NHL -- if Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen ever gives the go-ahead for a franchise.The National Hockey League isn't bound for Portland, at least in the near future.

That doesn't mean it won't happen sometime down the road.

Reports last week that representatives of the financially challenged Arizona Coyotes had toured Moda Center in Portland and KeyArena in Seattle with the possibility of a franchise move were false, according to Chris McGowan.

"We aren't aware of any NHL teams coming to Portland and looking at Moda Center," says McGowan, president and chief executive officer of the Trail Blazers, who own and operate the arena. "I'm not sure where that's all from, but it's certainly not anything we arranged."

Edie Burke, general manager of KeyArena, offered the same report.

"We've had no communication with anyone from the Coyotes, nor have we given a tour of our facility to anyone from their organization," she said.

Coyotes president/chief executive officer Anthony LeBlanc vehemently denied the newspaper account.

"Recent reports by the Glendale Star that the Coyotes ownership group has explored arena options outside the Arizona market are completely false," LeBlanc said in a statement. "The Star referenced an anonymous arena source and an anonymous Coyotes source, and these are a fabrication."

Later, on radio in Phoenix, LeBlanc reiterated, "It couldn't be farther from the truth."

The Coyotes are not happy with their arena situation in Glendale, though. For another 15 years, taxpayers will be paying off a $145 million debt on Gila River Arena, which has been the team's home since the facility opened in 2003.

In September, the Coyotes' 15-year arena lease agreement was terminated by the Glendale City Council. The Coyotes now are on an interim two-year agreement that ends in 2018. They were hoping to move into a new $400-million arena on the Arizona State campus in Tempe, but on Feb. 3, ASU officials backed out of the deal. The team was going to put up half the money, with the state and city of Tempe pungling up the rest.

LeBlanc is hopeful of finding another suitor to build an arena in the Phoenix area.

"The Coyotes are focused on creating one of the most taxpayer-friendly facilities in the country here in the Valley," he said in his statement. "This new arena will pay for itself, create jobs and generate millions of dollars for the state, county and municipality where it's built. We are fully committed to Arizona.

"We believe we will come up with a solution in the relative short term — that could be six months, that could be a year."

That solution, evidently, is not Portland.

"If there was something going on I could talk about (with Moda Center), I would," McGowan says, "but there really isn't anything at this point."

• • •

As early as 1999, Blazers owner Paul Allen inquired about the possibility of owning an NHL franchise.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had gone through bankruptcy proceedings that year, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman invited Allen to buy the club as a backup plan if a federal judge rejected efforts by Pittsburgh-based groups to buy the team. It ultimately was awarded to a group led by Mario Lemieux, and the team stayed in town.

In 2013, when the Coyotes already were having trouble with an arena-management deal in Glendale, the Blazers were monitoring the situation and prepared to make a bid to buy the team if the price was right. The Coyotes eventually agreed to a 15-year lease to remain in Glendale.

Allen and McGowan "haven't talked about the NHL in Portland in quite some time — definitely more than a year," McGowan says.

If there is an ally in the Blazer camp to the "NHL-to-Portland" movement, though, it's McGowan, who worked for 17 years (1996-2013) with the Los Angeles Kings and AEG Sports. He was chief operating officer of the Kings for five years and COO of AEG Sports for two years. McGowan is somewhat of a hockey guy, but he takes his marching orders from Allen, who most certainly isn't.

But Allen wants anything that makes business sense for Moda Center, and he'd love to have another tenant.

"When we think there's an opportunity for Portland or Moda Center or something that's going to be good for the community, we're open to that," McGowan says.

• • •

This is a time of change, and potential change, in the NHL. The Las Vegas Golden Knights will start in the NHL as an expansion team next season, giving the league an odd number — 31 — of franchises. Adding another team to make it an even 32 makes sense.

"I'm sure (NHL officials) are looking at Portland or Seattle," says Winterhawks general manager/head coach Mike Johnston, who was head coach of the Penguins for a season and a half in 2014 and '15. "They would like another team to pair with Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest."

Geographically, it makes sense. And Portland is a large enough market — 25th in the U.S. — to support the NHL.

"I can understand why people always talk about Portland when they talk about potential teams coming here," McGowan says. "In my opinion, it's the best market out there that doesn't have an NHL team."

Seven cities with larger market size don't have the NHL — Houston (No. 8), Atlanta (10), Seattle-Tacoma (14), Orlando (18), Cleveland (19), Sacramento (20) and Charlotte (22). Sacramento is the only one of those cities that doesn't have at least two of the "Big Four" pro sports — football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

There is plenty of interest in sports in Portland. The Trail Blazers average more than 19,000 a game in 20,000-seat capacity Moda Center. The Major League Soccer Timbers' sellout streak at 21,000-seat Providence Park stands at more than 100 games. That's not to mention the interest in Oregon and Oregon State football.

The Winterhawks average more than 7,000 for their games at Moda Center, which is NHL-ready and "would be an outstanding facility were the NHL to come," Johnston says.

"The Blazers and Timbers have done well," Johnston says. "Junior hockey has done well. Is there enough corporate support for the NHL here? I don't know. That's the big thing nowadays. That's what you need to put you over the top."

That's certainly a question Allen and McGowan have mulled. They could sell corporate packages and ticket and suite bundles for both the Blazers and an NHL club, but there are only three Fortune 500 companies in Oregon — Nike, Precision Castparts and Lithia Motors of Medford.

Las Vegas billionaire Bill Foley paid a record $500 million expansion fee for the Golden Knights, who will play in the $375-million, privately financed T-Mobile Arena, which opened in April 2016.

• • •

Winterhawks owner Bill Gallacher, a wealthy Calgary, Alberta, oil magnate, has for years expressed an interest in owning an NHL team — perhaps alongside the Winterhawks. There are NHL and Western Hockey League teams in Calgary and Edmonton. If Portland were to have two teams, the Hawks probably would move full-time to Memorial Coliseum.

"I've expressed my desire at having an NHL team at some point," Gallacher told me a year ago. "It has to be the right place at the right time, but we'd like that to be the next step for us.

"The demographics and numbers with Portland (indicate it's a) far more knowledgeable fan base than Nashville, a bigger draw than Buffalo ... but those aren't decisions I can make. Mr. Bettman and I are friends and have spoken at times. At this point, they have a lot on their ticket. That doesn't mean it won't happen."

Would Portland be the place he would put a team?

"My first thought is it's a logical fit with Portland, and I like the West Coast," Gallacher said. "But it depends on a whole bunch of factors."

(Allen probably would love to have Gallacher own the team and rent Moda Center, because he would retain profits from concessions, parking and other auxiliary options.)

• • •

I was hoping to get a comment from Bettman on his thoughts about Portland as a potential NHL city, but couldn't get past a request for an interview emailed to Frank Brown, whose title is "group vice president/communications."

"We're not in an expansion or relocation mode right now," Brown responded, "and we won't delve into hypothetical what-ifs."

NHL officials may not be in "expansion or relocation" mode, but the latter, at least, seems a possibility.

There is instability in at least a couple of the current franchises, notably the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders.

Carolina owner Peter Karmanos has had a "For Sale" sign out for two years. Karmanos, who turns 74 in March, bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994 and moved them to Raleigh in 1996.

The Hurricanes have made the playoffs once since 2006. They are losing money despite owning the lowest payroll in the NHL and rank last in average attendance at 12,025.

Last year, Karmanos was sued for more than $100 million by three of his sons after he missed multiple payment deadlines on loans taken out against a family trust. A mediated settlement was negotiated in September.

The NHL has said it is committed to keeping the team in Raleigh. Karmanos wants to sell to a local investor for $420 million, but none has surfaced. The NHL could add a relocation fee as well. Last November, Forbes valued the franchise at a league-low $225 million.

The Islanders, valued No. 18 at $385 million, rank 29th in attendance this season at 12,787. New owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, who paid $485 million for the franchise, moved the club from Nassau Coliseum in Long Island to Brooklyn's Barclays Center in 2015.

But fans have complained about poor sight lines, players say the ice is subpar and Barclays Center officials have decided they would make more money without the NHL.

The Islanders are under contract to play in Brooklyn for the next two seasons, but they have until next Jan. 1 to renegotiate terms of the deal or opt out and move to a new location. The lease can be terminated by either side — team or arena management. If the team cancels, it can leave after next season. if Barclays Center nixes, the Islanders' tenancy would end after the 2018-19 season.

The options, it would seem: Move back to a renovated Nassau Coliseum, build a new arena or convince Barclays Center the team is still a viable commodity. Or, perhaps, move the team out of the New York area.

There are other cities interested in landing an NHL franchise. When Las Vegas was awarded a franchise in 2015, Quebec City — which lost the Nordiques in 1995 — had its bid "deferred to a later date." Hartford, whose Whalers left for Carolina in 1994, is making a renewed attempt for a franchise. A Seattle group led by Chris Hansen wants to build a new arena, which would house both NBA and NHL clubs.

Allen and McGowan, meanwhile, are sitting by, watching what is happening on the NHL landscape.

"It's a situation we monitor," McGowan says. "For us to get involved, it would have to make sense (financially). I have a lot of years experience working in the NHL. I understand how the NHL is. I think it would be supported well in this marketplace as evidenced by the tremendous support the Winterhawks get. It's a wonderful community for sports. Everything does well here, and we have a great arena.

"I'm always going to be talking to Paul about opportunities that could do well in Portland. The NHL is one, but that doesn't mean we're going to pursue it or are interested in pursuing it at this time."

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@kerryeggers