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NHL commissioner: Plan B for Coyotes is premature

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OTTAWA (AP) - Price is not holding up the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, and it's premature to discuss a Plan B for the franchise's future, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Speaking after the NHL's Board of Governors meeting on Saturday during the All-Star weekend in Ottawa, Bettman remained hopeful a deal can be reached with one of three prospective buyers to keep the league-controlled Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz.

"We hope, based on the things that are ongoing, to have a sale in place before the end of the season that would keep the team in Glendale," Bettman said. "I don't see any reason to discuss a Plan B at this point."

He disputed concerns raised by Glendale officials that the NHL's asking price _ believed to be around $170 million _ might be holding up the sale. Bettman said the price hasn't been an issue with any of the three groups interested in purchasing the team.

On other topics, Bettman acknowledged a longstanding rift between New Jersey Devils owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Ray Chambers. Describing the franchise as stable, Bettman said the NHL is attempting to resolve the dispute by having one or the other assume control.

As for labor talks, Bettman said he intends to open informal discussions with the NHL Players' Association soon, but adds no timetable has been set for formal talks. The current deal expires in September.

The Coyotes remain the NHL's most pressing concern. The league has been operating the club for the past two seasons, with Glendale kicking in $25 million in each of the past two years to help keep the team afloat.

Two groups known to have expressed interest in the Coyotes are one led by former San Jose Sharks president and CEO Greg Jamison, and another by Chicago sports mogul Jerry Reinsdorf. Without providing names, Bettman on Thursday revealed there is also a third group that's shown "serious" interest in the team.

Bettman on Saturday declined to shed any new light on the third group and who might be involved.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly described the third group as "legitimate."

"They've been working at it for a while," Daly said. "They've been spending money, they've been doing due diligence. So those are all positive signs. It doesn't mean they're going to buy the franchise so we'll see how it plays out."

Bettman said there's no timetable for completing a sale, and the commissioner also sent a message to any North American market interested in luring the Coyotes by saying the league's not making any assurances.

"We've told anybody in any market who's asked, who doesn't have a team, `Don't do anything on planning on having a team because we're not making anybody any promises of anything,'" Bettman said.

Bettman didn't mention what communities he was referring to, but his statement came before a large contingent of French-Canadian media and amid speculation that Quebec City might be the latest Canadian city in line to regain a franchise after the Nordiques relocated to Denver in 1995.

The Jets returned to Winnipeg last summer after relocating from Atlanta.

The dispute among the Devils' owners has been growing for more than a year, which Bettman acknowledged has resulted in "some difficult consequences in terms of the operation of the club."

Bettman said the NHL is attempting to resolve the dispute. Without being specific, Bettman also said the league might have to consider other alternatives to handling the matter.

The owners have been at odds because they have different visions for the team. Vanderbeek had been adamant that he would keep part of the franchise.

On the bright side, Bettman said the sale of the St. Louis Blues to prospective buyer Tom Stillman is proceeding on track. Stillman is a Blues minority owner who has signed a purchase agreement to buy the franchise from Dave Checketts.

Bettman was optimistic the sale could be completed in "the not too distant future," but declined to provide a better timetable because of what he called the "magnitude" of the deal, and also because it requires NHL approval.

"We think it's on a timely track, so we're pretty optimistic that based on everything we're hearing, including from Tom, this should be a go," Bettman said.

As for labor talks, Bettman said the league is remaining patient in part because NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is only entering his second year on the job and still assessing the needs of his members.

"We're ready and we have been ready, but the union has had some work to do," Bettman said. "We're being patient. I'm not concerned about the time frame."

Fehr spoke later and expects a timetable for talks to be established within the next few weeks. He prefers having players present at what he called "the really significant sessions" of labor talks, but said that doesn't mean negotiations will have to wait until the season's over.

Fehr is meeting with Bettman in Ottawa this weekend, though that's not unusual because he said the two meet regularly.

Bettman also announced next year's All-Star game will be held in Columbus, Ohio, on the final weekend of January.

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