LOS ANGELES — The last thing commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League wants during the Stanley Cup Playoffs is embarrassing controversy off the ice and that is exactly what they have with the Phoenix Coyotes filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in recent days.
To be sure, there is a great deal of controversy brewing over whether or not Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes had the authority to file for bankruptcy and move to sell the Coyotes to Jim Balsillie, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Research In Motion, Inc., the makers of the wildly popular Blackberry.
Already, there is litigation pending with Balsillie and Moyes on one side and Bettman and the NHL on the other, along with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Why are the Leafs involved? Simple. Hamilton is located about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, New York, an area known as the “Golden Horseshoe,” according to Lyle Spencer (see The Real Reason Why Canada Doesn’t Have More NHL Franchises, May 8, 2009), better-known as Spector to the readers of his popular blog and his Spector’s Hockey web site.
Simply put, the Leafs want the territory all to themselves, even though population statistics show that the area could support another NHL team.
The Buffalo Sabres could also assert their territorial rights under NHL rules as well.
Plenty of stories have already been written about the specifics of the litigation and the controversy. This story will not rehash all that. But there is something to be said about the disposition of the Coyotes…
Let them move to an area that will support them. After all, it is crystal-clear that with the Coyotes in Glendale, Arizona, the Phoenix area will not support the team. In fact, moving the Coyotes from Phoenix to Glendale was a big, big mistake.
Indeed, the attraction of a new, state-of-the-art arena, complete with luxury boxes and the potential of increased revenues, was too great for the Coyotes to pass up. After all, the Glendale Arena (now the Jobing.com Arena) would be right next to University of Phoenix Stadium, where the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals play.
To be sure, the move was a high-stakes gamble, one that the Coyotes lost big on, and it appears that the biggest reason is not so much that hockey is a niche sport in the Sun Belt, or that Phoenix is not a hockey town.
Rather, just like for a baseball pitcher, the issue was location, location, location.
Indeed, Jobing.com Arena is too far away for many residents of the Valley of the Sun to make it to a Coyotes game, especially on a weeknight.
“It’s a pain,” said Erin Norton, 33, of Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. “It’s all the way on the other side of the valley. It’s all freeway but it’s still an hour away.”
“For fans in the East Valley, driving to Glendale on a weeknight to see a hockey game is just too far a distance,” added Norton.
And what about fans in Phoenix proper?
“Phoenix is central but Glendale is still about 20-30 minutes away depending on what part of town you’re in,” Norton explained.
Norton, who is an avid hockey fan going back to the days of the Phoenix Roadrunners of the now-defunct International Hockey League, pointed out that the original plan was to build the new Coyotes’ arena closer to Phoenix.
“The Coyotes’ new arena was supposed to be in South Scottsdale, which is about fifteen minutes from Phoenix and close to a freeway,” Norton explained. “That was still more central than Glendale which is on the far side of the greater Phoenix area.”
“I think moving the Coyotes to Glendale at first looked like a good idea because it’s right next to the Cardinals stadium,” Norton elaborated. “But the Cardinals play once a week on Sundays. It’s not a big deal to go to those games. They don’t play 41 home games with most on weeknights.”
Even though she has been to Coyotes games at Jobing.com Arena and has even had the opportunity to enjoy a game in a luxury box, like many other Phoenix area hockey fans, Norton rarely makes the long trek to Glendale.
“Jobing.com Arena is beautiful, no doubt about it,” she said. “But I will admit it is just too far for me to go to a game.”
This is where the Coyotes’ ownership went very, very wrong, shooting themselves, not in the proverbial foot, but in the heart, and it might very well be a fatal wound.
And Norton is not alone here. Scott Bordow, a sports columnist for the East Valley Tribune, one of the newspapers covering the Phoenix area, pointed to the failed deal to move the team to Scottsdale as a move that spelled doom for the Coyotes (see Coyotes Never Had A Chance In The Valley, May 5, 2009).
“Maybe the team wouldn’t have filed for bankruptcy had former owner Steve Ellman and Scottsdale worked out a deal to build an arena on the site of the old Los Arcos mall,” Bordow wrote. “Unfortunately, Ellman never did present a feasible plan to the city, and when Glendale offered to pay the large majority of the construction costs of Jobing.com Arena, he jumped.”
“I don’t blame Ellman, nor do I blame Scottsdale for showing some financial restraint,” Bordow added. “But the move to Glendale, while necessary, cut off the Coyotes from half the Valley. The Cardinals can make that work, given it’s the NFL and they only play ten Sunday home games a year. But hockey on a weeknight? Not a chance.”
If Bettman and the league are smart, they will allow the Coyotes to be sold and moved to Hamilton and then push MLSE and the Sabres hard to allow the team to move into their territory—is is quite clear that the area can support two NHL teams.
Of course, given Bettman’s history and that of MLSE, smart decisions are not something anyone should expect from either party.
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