Will they stay or will they go? That is the question.
That question might be answered next Tuesday (May 19), when a bankruptcy judge has set a hearing to decide who controls the financially-inept Phoenix Coyotes.
At the heart of the matter is a legal agreement between majority owner Jerry Moyes and the NHL that was signed in November, which saw the league begin financing the team because Moyes had refused to keep covering losses.
Moyes claims he still owns the team while the NHL claims the agreement put them in control—and thus Moyes had no authority to put the team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The legality of this agreement is unlikely to sway in the NHL’s favour, considering how much millions of lost dollars Moyes has absorbed as owner since taking control of the team in 2001.
But the bigger issue behind this clash is the Napoleonic ego of under-sized NHL commissioner Gary Bettman against the gazillionaire ego of BlackBerry bigwig Jim Balsillie, who twice has tried to purchase an existing NHL franchise only to be thwarted by his arch-nemesis.
He first tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, pledging to keep the club there if a new arena could be built. Reportedly, the NHL wanted to add some clauses to the deal that would force Balsillie to keep the team in Pittsburgh even if a new arena wasn’t built, so Balsillie bailed (on a side note, the new arena is now under construction).
Later, he tried to purchase the Nashville Predators in hopes of moving them to Hamilton, but to no avail there, either.
Hockey in the Valley of the Sun was in peril in 2001 when talks of moving the team to Portland were all the rage, but Moyes and former co-owner Steve Ellman swooped in and put a new arena in a cotton field.
The area has sprouted up since, with the University of Phoenix Stadium (home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals) now nearby and plenty of other entertainment options—but it’s still out of the way for our average Phoenix resident.
Quasi-hockey fans are not going to spend hours in a car on a weekday night cheering a near-faceless team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2002. I can vouch for the endless commute to and from the rink having suffered through it at Christmas time when I was down there for a game (the Coyotes lost 4-0 and made that long drive an ever harder pill to swallow).
And that’s essentially the point here—winning is everything.
The Penguins, in the traditional hockey market of Pittsburgh, were dead-last in attendance at 11,877 per game in 2004. In 2005, they drafted Sidney Crosby and needless to say have been on the winning track ever since, increasing their attendance to the top third of the league despite playing out of the same old broken-down Mellon Arena.
Markets like Anaheim and Tampa Bay played to sparse crowds until they went on long playoff runs, won Stanley Cups, and developed a loyal fan base.
The Phoenix metropolitan area has fans that would support a winning team, despite the arena’s poor location, but the team has never given the fans the luxury of a long playoff run that helps develop loyalties.
Hockey fans in Arizona still cheer for the Red Wings and Blackhawks, and attendance numbers spike whenever those “Original Six” teams come to town. More than half the rink is adorned in Red Wing red, outnumbering the so-called hometown faithful.
Some will blame the lack of spending by ownership to help build a winner in the desert, and that may be partially true, but when they have spent in the past, the results have been disastrous (see over-the-hill free agent signings like Brett Hull, Petr Nedved, and Tony Amonte).
However, they chose to sign David Hale (seriously?) last summer rather than make a pitch for the wealth of free-agent defencemen that were on the market. And when Kurt Sauer went down with an injury at mid-season, the move forced Hale into a more prominent role and the team fell apart.
They were fifth in the Western Conference at the time, only to plummet to 13th by season’s end.
You get what you pay for, but despite the financial handicap, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel with a good, young core in place—only to have Moyes say enough is enough.
Being a longtime fan of the Jets/Coyotes franchise, I have held out hope for nearly two decades.
The current management group spearheaded by general manager Don Maloney has made headway—developing the team through youth and draft picks—but that type of approach is a marathon rather than a sprint, and another non-playoff season is not financially viable, especially for a non-hockey fan like Moyes is.
He stepped in to help his friend Ellman in need, and ended up being saddled with the full financial burden. Ouch.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said if Moyes claims the win on the ownership squabble, the league’s owners still would have final say as to whether a team can be sold or relocated.
If the court sides with Moyes and Balsillie, they still would need 23 of 30 votes from the other owners in the league for the sale to be approved.
Relocation specifically to southern Ontario would require a majority of 16 votes to pass.
Can it happen? Sure, especially if it affects each of the owner’s bottom lines. It is a business after all, and if some of their profits are going to hold up a financially unstable Coyotes’ team, you can bet they’ll be on the horn to change that.
But Daly said he believes the Coyotes will play next season in Glendale, and was confident a new owner would emerge to keep the team in the Valley.
A name surfacing has been that of Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, but one look at the Coyotes’ finances likely would steer the fiscal businessman away.
Bettman already is hated by a good many Canadian hockey fans, dating back to his decisions to move teams out of hockey cities in Canada and into non-traditional markets seeking big TV dollars and a generation of new fans.
Balsillie is using that dissent and channeling it for his own cause, creating a www.makeitseven.ca website to generate buzz for a seventh Canadian NHL team.
I know hockey cities like Winnipeg and Hamilton deserve NHL franchises—there is no doubt—but the anti-American sentiment towards fans in more southern markets is misinformed and unnecessary.
Hockey can survive and thrive in both markets—under the right circumstances.
Blame the suits running the show behind the scenes rather than the fans.
Few NHL teams can afford to lose year after year and still expect fans to shell out $100 a ticket to watch. Few NHL teams made as many poor draft picks as the Coyotes have over their 13 years in the desert.
And few NHL teams have had a part owner as a head coach who seems to enjoy captaining the sinking ship.
If you want proof that hockey can work down south, watch the Carolina Hurricanes.
Will they stay or will they go? That is the question.