Anthony LeBlanc, 39, says bringing professional hockey to Thunder Bay has long been one of his dreams.
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Anthony LeBlanc desperately wants to bring professional hockey to Thunder Bay. But first there’s the little matter of purchasing the Phoenix Coyotes.
LeBlanc, 39, a former executive with Research in Motion, said on Sunday that should his $150-million bid to buy the struggling NHL franchise be successful, he would then take a serious look at ending the club’s affiliation agreement with the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage, then consider buying an existing team available on the open market and move them to his hometown.
The Rampage’s affiliation agreement with the Coyotes is scheduled to end following the 2010-11 campaign.
The deal would hinge on whether or not Thunder Bay had concrete plans for a new arena in place.
“We need some pretty serious help from Thunder Bay, because we need a new building. This would not be something we would be interested in doing without a commitment and ultimately shovels in the ground for a new facility,” LeBlanc said in an exclusive phone interview with Thunder Bay Source from his Ottawa home.
LeBlanc, who left Thunder Bay in 1993 and RIM last year, still maintains close ties with the community and met with city manager Tim Commisso a couple of weeks ago to gauge the municipality’s reception to the idea.
“I would say the reception was quite warm,” LeBlanc said, noting that aging Fort William Gardens, a 3,700 seat facility built in the 1950s, probably needed to be replaced a decade-and-a-half ago.
Estimates have previously placed the cost of a new facility in the $40 million to $50 million range.
LeBlanc, who has been working for the past couple of years trying to bring an Ontario Hockey League team to Thunder Bay, is partnering with fellow Lakehead native Keith McCullough and his Research Edge partner Daryl Jones through Ice Edge Holdings, a company the trio formed to investigate potential investment opportunities.
He pointed to Abbotsford, B.C. as a working model of how an AHL team could work in Thunder Bay.
“They’ve just built this beautiful … 7,000-seat facility in Abbotsford, which is obviously a suburb of Vancouver, but the demographics and the population of Abbotsford are kind of similar to Thunder Bay and they’re getting their new AHL franchise this year that’s affiliated with Calgary,” LeBlanc said.
Part of the bid to buy the Coyotes includes managing Jobing.com Arena, a partnership Ice Edge Holdings would also seek in Thunder Bay.
The opportunity to buy the Coyotes came unexpectedly. LeBlanc's former boss, RIM co-chief executive Jim Balsillie had submitted a $212.5-million offer to buy the franchise, openly stating his intentions to move the team to Hamilton, a move LeBlanc applauded at the time, joining the Make it Seven club Balsillie formed to show support for his plan.
NHL officials rebuked Balsillie's idea, but Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to get around the league’s objection and force the courts to accept Balsillie’s offer.
Instead an Arizona bankruptcy judge, Redfield T. Baum, decided an Aug. 5 auction for potential owners willing to keep the team in Phoenix would be staged. Only LeBlanc and Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, submitted bids. Reinsdorf’s bid came in at $148 million. If neither bid is accepted, Balsillie and other potential owners looking to move the club could be afforded back into the mix in September.
LeBlanc said he and his partners hadn’t thought of a professional sports team as a potential moneymaker, but after meeting with Coyotes part-owner Wayne Gretzky and going over the books, they decided there was a good business case to keep the team in the Arizona capital and be successful.
“What we found was what I like to refer to as a business case of how not to run a business,” LeBlanc said. “This was perhaps the most poorly run business I have seen in my experience and my partners feel the same way.
“We’re looking at this opportunity as taking an under-utilized asset and turning it into something that could be relatively powerful.”
The Coyotes, he continued, will benefit from an improved economy in Phoenix, where housing prices have hit rock bottom and people, mostly northerners with cultural ties to hockey, are gobbling them up.
It also doesn’t hurt, LeBlanc said, that the team, which hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs in 22 years and hasn’t even made the post-season since 2002, is “ready to take off,” on the ice and become a contender.
Ice Edge Holding officials also met with league executives, who gave them the go-ahead to submit a bid.
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City staffers could not immediately be reached for comment on Sunday. LeBlanc said he would know within a month if his AHL plan for Thunder Bay was feasible.