Phoenix Coyotes – Drama in the Desert

Posted: February 13, 2011 in Arizona, hockey, NHL, Phoenix Coyotes, Relocation/Expansion, Stadiums/Arenas
Tags: , , , ,

Had I begun this blog a mere year ago, I undoubtedly would have already created dozens of individual posts about the continuing drama surrounding this team.  For those that don’t know the history of this NHL franchise, I’ll give a “brief” history below:

The Coyotes began their existence far away from the sun-baked deserts of Glendale in the frozen tundra of Winnipeg, Canada.  Founded in 1972 as the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association (WHA), the future-Coyotes entered the world of professional hockey at a crucial crossroads of the sport’s history.  The NHL had only just recently expanded for the first time in decades, literally doubling almost overnight from six franchises to twelve in 1967. While this expansion allowed the league to bargain for lucrative American television contracts and brought professional hockey to markets that were starving for a chance to host NHL teams, namely Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area, it was also a highly controversial decision. By doubling in size immediately, rather than instigating gradual growths as Major League Baseball was slowly implementing, the overall talent pool of professional hockey was watered down significantly.  Questions over the legitimacy of the St. Louis franchise, seemingly only founded so as to allow the very powerful owner of the Chicago Blackhawks to sell off an arena that he owned in St. Louis (the St. Louis Arena, home of the Blues for the first quarter century of the team’s existence), were raised by many hockey observers.  And, most importantly, the NHL did not add any more teams in Canada, meaning that despite the fact that the vast majority of the players were Canadian and Canadians as a whole were much more rabid followers of hockey than Americans, the 1967-68 season would feature only two Canadian teams and ten American teams.  To potential fans across Canada, and especially in Vancouver (which many assumed was a shoe-in to receive an expansion franchise in 1967), this was a complete travesty.

As a result, over the span of the next decade, the NHL began to undertake a series of haphazard expansions that instigated a phase of intense growing pains that would haunt the league for years to come.  Over the next decade, the NHL would add franchises in Vancouver, Buffalo, Atlanta, a second team in New York, Kansas City, and Washington D.C.  With the floodgates open and the expansions continuing, a rising discontent grew in municipalities angered over the fact that they were not receiving franchises from the NHL.  In response, a second professional league, the Western Hockey Association (WHA) was formed to challenge the monopoly that the NHL held on professional hockey in North America, founding franchises across Canada and the United States.  While this league proved to be nowhere near as stable as the elder NHL, the war between these two leagues lead to rapidly escalating player salaries, increased cost overhead, and decreased profits and available talent. By 1979, both leagues were at their breaking point.  The WHA was nearing fiscal insolvency and several NHL franchises were either on the verge of outright collapse and/or strongly considering relocation to other cities in hopes of a brighter future.

After prolonged and intense negotiations, the WHA agreed to merge with the NHL, bringing the Winnipeg Jets and three other franchises into the NHL. While the now 21-team league stood as the sole major professional hockey league in North America, it had been incredibly bloodied by its feud with the WHA. The California Golden Seals had been forced to relocate to Cleveland before eventually merging with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978 in order to keep that team alive.  The Kansas City Scouts barely lasted two years before moving to Denver in 1976 to become the Colorado Rockies (the later MLB team would take their name from this hockey team) before being forced to relocate again to New Jersey to become the Devils in 1982.  The Atlanta Flames, the league’s first real attempt to expand into the American South, failed miserably and moved to Calgary in 1980.  And to make matters even worse, in a vindictive fashion the NHL stripped most of the talent from the four former-WHA franchises in order to placate the hardline owners of teams already in the NHL.

Despite this, the former teams of the WHA, the Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, and Edmonton Oilers, initially thrived in their new surroundings. The Oilers would go on to put together one of the most impressive dynasties in all of professional sports history, winning the Stanley Cup an astonishing five times in the span of seven years from 1984 to 1990.  The Nordiqes built a strong and passionate rivalry with their fellow French-speaking Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Whalers built a loyal fanbase in Connecticut while competing strongly with more established rivals in nearby New York and Boston.  Finally, the Jets became the pride and joy of the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

As the 1990s approached though, the situation for these (and other) franchises worsened considerably.  The economy across North America grew weak as both Canada and the United States sunk into recession, and the Canadian dollar fell to all-time lows, drastically hurting teams across the league, especially the newer franchises in Quebec City, Hartford, and Winnipeg.  All three teams would seek greener pastures to the south in response to fiscal uncertainty.  The Whalers would abandon Connecticut for the Carolinas in 1997 to become the Hurricanes.  The Nordiques left for Denver to become the Avalanche in 1995, where they proceeded to win two Stanley Cups in their first six years in their new city.  And the Jets, in a move viewed as most peculiar of all, moved to the deserts of Arizona to become the Coyotes in 1996.

The story of this franchise could easily have ended there, but drama would continue to follow the Coyotes in their new environs.  Despite starting out strong, making the playoffs in five of their first six years in Arizona, the Coyotes continued to be marred by difficulties. The first arena they played in, the American West Arena, was completely inadequate for hockey purposes.  Almost immediately, the team attempted to gain local support in the construction of a new arena, only to face challenges at every step of the way.  Over the next several years, the Coyotes changed ownership twice and began to suffer on the ice despite bringing in all-time great hockey player Wayne Gretzky to coach the team, proving the old standard that great players don’t always make for great coaches.

But, after long legal wranglings and attempts to woo popular support for the construction of a new arena, the Coyotes were finally successful in building the Arena.  Despite its very odd name (which I personally believe to be the worst named arena in all of professional sports, and the second worst named facility after only the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre, an outdoor concert facility in Tampa, Florida), the team finally got a venue that they could be proud of…. at a very high cost.  As a result of the years of demands and requests for public funding for the new arena from the team, the construction of the Arena left the Coyotes tens of millions of dollars in debt and had alienated a large portion of their fanbase.  During the first decade of the 21st Century, the team slid into deeper and deeper mediocrity and debt.  The team’s average attendance sunk to the near bottom of the league and they failed to reach the playoffs for six straight seasons.

This all came to a head in 2009, when the Coyotes filed for bankruptcy after they had lost over $50 million in 2008 alone, forcing the league to step in and take over ownership of the team.  In that same year, Forbes magazine released their annual valuations of every single NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchise.  Out of 122 teams, the Phoenix Coyotes were ranked dead last, 122nd place, as the lowest valued major sports franchise in North America.

Despite oddly making it into the playoffs that season, thanks in large part to the league’s willingness to spend money on the team’s payroll and to hire competent coaching in order to raise the potential selling price of the team to prospective buyers, the Coyotes continued to muddle around.  Despite attracting several potential high profile buyers, notably Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls, every major potential investor balked at the league’s demands that they promise to keep the team in Arizona.  What’s more, whenever the team’s record books were made available to potential investors, the sight of all the red ink seemed to have scare off everybody that the league was willing to sell the team to.  Only Jim Balsillie, an eccentric Canadian billionaire who has repeatedly attempted to purchase NHL teams with the expressed intention of moving them to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, remained willing to buy the franchise from the NHL, much to the NHL’s increasingly costly chagrin.

In 2010, the NHL seemed to finally score a major victory by getting the Glendale city council to agree to a $100 million bond issue on Arena, thereby seemingly eliminating a great deal of the team’s debt and opening the door to for a potential sale to people other than Balsillie.  While the NHL quickly trumpeted this achievement and began moving ahead with plans to sell the franchise to another group of prospective investors, it proved to be very controversial, as many Glendale residents were unwilling to financially support a professional sports team with public funding, especially one that many seemingly had no interest in supporting even as fans.

And all that brings up to the current situation, with the conservative Goldwater Institute seemingly on the verge of filing a lawsuit to block the bond issue, and subsequently any potential sale that the NHL is planning.  A lot is expected to happen regarding the Coyotes saga in the next week or two, so a lengthy background was needed before I could potentially go into any additional news on the franchise.  Drastically different outcomes could arise in the next several days, ranging from the NHL using the safeguard established by Glendale’s bond issue to finally sell the team to the Goldwater Institute blocking the bond issue and, by extension, preventing any potential sale of the team.  Depending on what happens, the Coyotes could just as easily be able to stay in the Arizona desert for years to come or be forced to pack up and leave the Grand Canyon State for another city, potentially even back to their original home of Winnipeg.

More news to come soon, in all likelihood. Hopefully there will be light at the end of the tunnel for this team sooner rather than latter and they they can find success wherever they end up.

  1. Barold says:

    why has the NHL been so refractory to Balsillie purchasing the team and moving to Hamilton? Is it simply because they think the presence of a team in Hamilton will damage the popularity of the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs? There are something like 600k people in Hamilton, maybe a million in the Buffalo area, and 5 million in Toronto, and it seems that the prevailing stereotypes of those residents suggests that the area could easily support an additional franchise (both the Leafs and Sabres come pretty close to selling out every game).

    Or is it just that the NHL doesn’t want to move them at all because they have some silly notion that they need to maintain a presence in the American Southwest?

    • SportVotes says:

      Basically, the problems surrounding the NHL and Balsillie are three-fold.

      1) To put it simply, Bettman and the NHL owners don’t like Balsillie, plain and simple. He’s a firebrand, an outside stone-thrower that has built a lot of his support for bringing a team up to Hamilton around Canadian nationalist support over the belief that the Canadian sport deserves more Canadian teams. This is best evident by an organization he created called “Make it Seven” to try to build public support demanding that the NHL agree to the Balsillie’s requests to purchase the Coyotes (after having failed in his attempts to buy and move the Penguins and the Predators). These attempts have seriously irked the NHL leadership to the point where they’d rather lose money than give him control of a team.

      2) Team concerns exist over adding a team to the Hamilton-area. While the Sabres have a strong argument claiming that a Hamilton franchise would hurt their profit margins, as some estimates have put their fanbase as being 50% Canadian, it is the extremely powerful Maple Leafs organization that is blocking it. While they won’t come right out as say it, the Maple Leafs view not only the Greater Toronto Area but the entirety of Southern Ontario as their turf. Any move to add another team to the province would be strongly and fiercely contested by the Leafs (and remember, despite their lack of success over the past several decades, they are still the biggest and more profitable team in the league) and would likely demand a massive indemnity paid to them if a team actually does move in.

      3) The NHL does not want to lose any part of the American market. Despite troubles in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and Long Island, the NHL views these markets as being vital in trying to gain profitable major market TV contracts. Simply put, they can take Canada for granted, as they know that Canadians will follow and watch the NHL on Canadian television regardless, so they view the northern market as being near-maxed out as it is. The Southern United States, on the other hand, is still viewed as an incredibly massive and untapped market that they don’t want to give up on, despite all the troubles that the Yotes, Thrashers, Panthers, and Bolts have faced over the years in gaining public support.

      Add those together, and the NHL has (from their perspective) to be very against working with Baisille in letting him move a team to Hamilton. The NHL might very well be open to placing teams eventually in Winnipeg and Quebec City, but for the reasons given definitely not Hamilton.

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