Landing European owners a significant move

The World Hockey Association continues to edge closer to rebirth.

The league confirmed Tuesday it will hold a six-team, high-stakes tournament in late May at General Motors Place, home of the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks.

Additionally, ESPN.com has learned that a group of eastern European investors is interested in buying 49 percent of the WHA and owning one of the fledgling league's top North American franchises when play begins next fall.

It's expected the European group will seek ownership of the Hamilton, Ontario, franchise and will attempt to sign major junior star Sydney Crosby to its roster. Additionally, the group, which is believed to be powerful hockey czars who have already spent lavishly on a professional team in Europe, would take control of the WHA's European division, which is slated to begin play in 2006-07. The group would also be involved in possible expansion by the WHA into Japan.

"Of course we must look at this offer seriously as it would provide additional strength to the WHA as well as solidify our goals of expansion into Europe and Japan," WHA president Ricky Smith told ESPN.com. "This group would bring leadership, a wealth of hockey background and the desire to compete. What more could we ask for? The fact that it would assist us in our desire to offer Sidney Crosby a contract with the WHA is another factor we cannot overlook."

Another benefit of the partnership would be the ability to lure top-notch European players to North America next season, especially if the NHL is not able to resolve its labor dispute that scuttled the 2004-05 season.

Smith said a decision on the ownership bid will be made by the end of the week.

The infusion of between $150 million and $225 million for the minority share, plus a $7 million franchise fee, improves the perception of the WHA, which has been attempting to prove its legitimacy to fans, agents and the players who would form the backbone of the eight to 10 franchises the league hopes to ice in late October.

"For sure I'm going to think about the WHA and Europe," Crosby told reporters in Toronto earlier this month, shortly after signing a multiyear endorsement deal with Reebok.

Crosby, a native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, is the consensus No.1 pick for the 2005 NHL draft. However, if the NHL does not reach a new collective bargaining in time to hold the event as scheduled on June 25 and 26 in Ottawa or before the next NHL is scheduled to begin, Crosby's future becomes uncertain. It's likely the most promising junior hockey player of this generation will seek a higher level of competition next season, even though he is still under contract to play in the Quebec Major Junior League. It's believed Crosby, 17, would prefer to play in North America, especially if a WHA franchise would be willing to meet his salary demands.

Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson of IMG, said he wasn't aware of the potential involvement of the European ownership group, but added it might be a factor when Crosby makes a decision on where to play next season.

"It solidifies the [WHA's] operation, no doubt," Brisson said Monday. "The bottom line is you want to make sure you're getting involved with the right product. You don't want a league that will fold after two months."

The WHA originally had planned to instill a salary-cap system. However, it has recently backed off the idea partly because it is targeting owners with significant financial resources and partly to enhance the possibility of attracting NHL players, who have rejected the system offered by NHL owners.

The WHA's road to legitimacy doesn't begin and end with Crosby.

Reebok has been in negotiation with the league for lead sponsorship of its tournament, dubbed The Bobby Hull Invitational after WHA commissioner Bobby Hull, a former star with the league during its heyday in the early 1970s.

The WHA also has enlisted Hall of Famer Phil Esposito to serve as tournament chairman. The tournament features a $2 million purse for the winning team and offers a $20,000 participation fee for each player. The event, which runs from May 20 to June 2, will feature three teams playing a round-robin format in Hamilton or Toronto and three others playing at GM Place. The winners of each "division" will play off in a best-of-five series in Vancouver.

Smith confirmed the WHA has made a down payment on a lease agreement with Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, owner of the arena and the Canucks, but he would not disclose the amount.

While some members of the Canucks could end up playing in their home rink for a rival league, Smith said owners and operators of a number of NHL buildings with whom the WHA has discussed similar arrangements view the WHA in the same light as a church revival group, a tractor pull or a circus that wants to lease their building for an event.

Harvey Jones, vice president and general manager of arena operations for Orca Bay, said they're not prejudicial in their dealings with the WHA.

"We're arena operators. We're dealing with a third party," Jones said.

The WHA also is in discussions that would have IMG organize The Bobby Hull Invitational, instead of hosting an exhibition series of its own. Sources said the WHA is willing to put up a $4.5 million security bond to ensure the relationship, although rosters won't be limited to IMG players.

Brisson wouldn't confirm Crosby's participation in the tournament but said the tournament is crucial to the WHA's credibility and that top-notch players will definitely be involved if the financial package and other elements of the tournament are secured.

"You'll see some great hockey talent," Brisson predicted.

According to the WHA's Web site, 67 NHL players will play in the tournament, including Tony Amonte, Keith Primeau, Scott Gomez, Jose Theodore, Sean Burke, Derian Hatcher, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla and Nicklas Lidstrom, although Brisson cautioned that some may have only expressed interest and are waiting final details before committing.

The games will feature a host of changes to conventional NHL rules. The center red line will be removed; penalized players will serve the entire penalty, regardless if a goal is scored; and teams will be able to change lines only on the fly. Teams will be awarded one point for every period won and two points for a game victory for a total of five possible points per game.

Six captains will pick their squads in a draft format in April.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.