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Gillett looking to cut a deal

Liverpool co-owner George Gillett has hired a Canadian investment firm to assess the value of his Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team and probe the market for potential buyers.

In a statement, Canadiens president Pierre Boivin confirmed that Bank of Montreal's Nesbit Burns had been appointed by Gillett to appraise the National Hockey League club, adding, "The Gillett family has retained the services of financial advisers in order to assess various strategic alternatives to optimize the value of its corporate assets."

Having bought 80.1 per cent of the Canadiens for $180 million in January 2001, Gillett would stand to make a handsome profit from the club's sale. In it's latest valuation of NHL franchises, Forbes magazine estimated the Canadiens to be worth $334 million.

The influx of cash would be of immediate benefit to Liverpool, assuming that Gillett remains at the helm of the English giants alongside co-owner Tom Hicks. The two have sparred frequently in the past but seem to be focused on improving the club's fortunes and restructuring the considerable debt they took on to purchase the team in February 2006.

Upon signing manager Rafael Benitez to a five-year contract earlier this month, Hicks revealed his desire to remain at Anfield for an identical length of time. Gillett, despite rumors that he'll sell off all of his sports properties, is thought to mirror his partner's intentions.

In the short term, Gillett and Hicks are faced with a July 24 deadline to repay or refinance $510m of Liverpool's debt. Refinancing is an unlikely option as both of their lenders - Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia - were partially nationalized late last year.

It's equally doubtful that the profit generated from the sale of the Canadiens will go towards Liverpool's debt. Gillett has been badly hit by the economic storm and was forced to take out a high-interest $75 million loan in December. He has since denied it was for cash-flow purposes.

Nevertheless, the 70-year-old was worth an estimated $1.1 billion in November 2007, a full year before he suffered the effects of the economic downturn. Any sizeable reduction in his net worth will have taken him well below that of the Premier League side he co-owns.

Gillett's best-case scenario would include both the lucrative sale of the Canadiens and a debt restructuring agreement with Liverpool's creditors. Failing that, it wouldn't be at all surprising if he combined portions of his interest in both clubs and packaged them off to investors. He has been mulling the idea for some time, telling reporters in December that such a strategy "might enable fans or interested parties in investing in one or more of our sports properties."

Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie could very well be one of the "parties" Gillett referred to. The co-CEO of Research in Motion revealed Gillett's intention to sell the Canadiens in November 2008, telling Montreal daily La Presse that the 24-time Stanley Cup champions were on the block. Gillett vehemently denied the speculation, although Balsillie's remarks were validated less than four months later.

If Gillett opts to hang on to the Canadiens and offers combined Liverpool-Montreal investment packages - what he calls "investment strips" - to new investors, he will no doubt damage his already battered reputation in the eyes of many Liverpool supporters who opposed the American takeover of the club in the first place.

Ironically, the move would be welcomed in Canada, where the Colorado native is a hugely popular figure on the North American sports scene. In addition to presiding over such fashionable sports properties as the Miami Dolphins, Harlem Globetrotters and a Nascar racing team, he has been accepted by Canadiens supporters as a loyal, conscientious owner.

Like Liverpool, Montreal are the most successful club in the history of their domestic league. Much hockey history is tied to their exploits and to those of their players, not unlike the legacy on Merseyside. It's astonishing that Gillett has been perceived so differently at such similar clubs.


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