Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 05/09/12 at 12:49 PM ET
After three years of uncertainty, the Phoenix Coyotes ownership issue could be on the verge of resolution.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday acknowledged a tentative agreement had been reached with an ownership group (led by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison) which would keep the team in Glendale, Arizona.
This doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, as the NHL Board of Governors must approve the sale, plus the Jamison group would have to not only work out a new arena lease agreement with Glendale City Council, but one which would pass scrutiny of The Goldwater Institute, a local taxpayer watchdog.
Nevertheless, this news could signal a significant step toward ensuring the Coyotes remain in Arizona.
Critics wonder why the league has fought so hard and for so long to keep the franchise there, pointing to the poor attendance - especially over the past five, when they’ve been either last or second-last in overall attendance - as proof of poor fan support in that market for the NHL.
The consensus among the critics is the Coyotes would be best served relocating to a more “traditional” hockey market.
It was thought the Coyotes would return to Winnipeg (where until 1996 they had been the original Jets), until the Atlanta Thrashers were moved there in June 2011. Quebec City, Seattle, Hamilton and Kansas City have since been suggested as possible destinations
There’s nothing mysterious over the league’s stubborn insistence on keeping the Coyotes in their current market.
Glendale falls into the metropolitan statistical area of Phoenix, which is among the largest (12th) in the United States. If the Coyotes could survive and eventually thrive there, the economic benefits for the league would be tremendous.
That’s why Bettman and the league board of governors fought so hard in 2009 to prevent former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes selling the team to then-RiM co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Given Balsillie’s recent financial troubles, blocking that sale turned out to be a good thing for the team and the league.
It’s why the 29 other team owners agreed to allow the league to take control of the franchise while Bettman and his aides beat the bushes in search of owners willing to keep the Coyotes in Glendale.
If the sale of the Coyotes to the Jamison group is approved, the wisdom of keeping the team in its current location will continue to be questioned by its critics.
Should the Coyotes fail to see a significant, sustained gain in fan support, the belief an NHL franchise cannot survive in Arizona will not only prove justified, but prophetic.
The Phoenix market has received blistering criticism around the league for failing to support the Coyotes, but there were contributing factors responsible for those poor attendance numbers.
The previous ownership, with Moyes first as a minority owner from 2001 to 2006, then as majority owners from 2006 to 2009, failed to bring in the right people to properly run the team. That includes Wayne Gretzky, who was a part-owner, director of hockey operations, and eventually head coach.
Though Gretzky was the greatest player in NHL history, the Coyotes record when he and his staff ran the team speaks for itself, as the club missed the playoffs from 2003 to 2009, leading to a decline in fan support.
Critics often point to this as a reason why an NHL franchise cannot survive in that market, blithely overlooking the fact attendance in several“traditional” hockey markets (Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Buffalo) also significantly declined when teams in those markets performed poorly.
It was when Don Maloney took over as general manager in 2007, and Dave Tippett came on board as head coach in 2009, that the Coyotes finally turned the corner from perennial also-ran into playoff contender.
Despite the team’s improvement over the past three seasons, the Coyotes continued to rank either last or second-last in attendance, providing further ammunition for their critics.
The constant threat of relocation over that period, however, was a significant contributing factor. It made little sense for Phoenix-area sports fans to support a team which many believed would be gone the following season.
For those who dismiss that as a poor attitude among those fans, consider fans in “traditional” hockey markets in Winnipeg and Quebec City also didn’t turn out in huge numbers during the respective final seasons of the original Jets and the Nordiques.
Should this deal to the Jamison group be approved, the threat of imminent relocation will be gone, as will the excuse not to support the club.
It will then become “put up or shut up” time for Phoenix sports fans to prove they will support a well-run NHL team.
Over the past three seasons, the Coyotes under Maloney’s management and Tippett’s coaching have been a perennial playoff contender, and done so under a tighter budget than other NHL clubs. Indeed, they’ve had more on-ice success since 2009 than the Toronto Maple Leafs, the league’s richest franchise with one of its highest payrolls.
That said, this is a franchise which cannot continue to just operate on a shoestring as poorly supported underdogs forever.
Ownership will do what it can to ice a competitive franchise, but they’ll need strong fan support to over the long run to have a shot at not only climbing out of a morass of debt, but also to stand on its own, without support from the league or the local city council.
Rest assured, if the Coyotes continue to rank near the bottom of the league in attendance over the next ten years, even if they ice a perennially competitive playoff contender over that period, the Jamison group will tire of wasting time and money and seek to rid itself of the franchise.
If it comes to that, the league won’t be as determined to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, and local fans won’t have anyone to blame but themselves should they move.
If the fan support isn’t there over the next decade, the sale to the Jamison group will be merely postponing the inevitable.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.