GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes are still here.
Not only that, they got off to the third-best start in franchise history.
So where have all the fans gone? The players are beginning to wonder.
“We’re here. We’re not going anywhere,” winger Scottie Upshall said after a morning skate this week. “If we’re winning games, why not come support a winning club?”
A combination of prolonged ineptitude – the Coyotes haven’t made the playoffs since 2002 – and skepticism over the team’s future is hampering the team at the gate.
The Coyotes also are contending with the fallout of a rancorous six-month court battle for control of the club. Crowds have remained sparse even as the Coyotes have climbed in the Western Conference standings.
“I don’t think anything we’ve seen the first month of the season, from an attendance standpoint, surprises us,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who attended Thursday night’s game against Montreal. “Obviously, there was a lot of damage done to this franchise over the summer.”
Former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in May and tried to sell it to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move the franchise to Hamilton. The NHL fought the move, was awarded control of the team and is searching for a local owner.
During the off-season, it seemed as if a new crisis erupted every other day, capped by coach Wayne Gretzky’s abrupt resignation nine days before the opener. But the Coyotes have emerged from the chaos in fine shape – at least on the ice.
With 20 points in their first 17 games, the Coyotes were off to the third-best start in franchise history, behind the 1986-87 Winnipeg Jets and the 1998-99 Coyotes.
Their nine victories in October matched a franchise record.
It’s as if the Coyotes have drawn strength from turmoil.
“Really, it’s kind of united or galvanized our dressing room,” captain Shane Doan said. “You have every excuse not to be successful. You have everyone saying how many distractions there are. But as a group it’s really kind of brought us together.”
The players have responded to new coach Dave Tippett. He replaced Gretzky, who was also a part owner, after he stepped down on Sept. 24.
“There’s certainly some work to be done,” Tippett said. “There’s certainly some building to be done. But for the most part there’s a lot of upside on this team.”
Tippett, who coached Dallas for six seasons, installed a defence-oriented system, and it has paid immediate dividends. Entering Thursday night’s game, the Coyotes had conceded 39 goals, fourth-fewest in the NHL.
“He’s obviously come in with a plan,” defenceman Adrian Aucoin said. “He’s really established a good system that seems to work well for us, and I think guys have really bought into it.”
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov had a 1.98 goals-against average through 17 games, third in the league, and backup Jason LaBarbera was at 2.28.
The Coyotes need a stout defence because they have trouble putting the puck in the net. After bombarding Los Angeles with six goals in the opener, the Coyotes scored three or fewer goals in 14 of their next 16 games.
The players have been discouraged by the small crowds. But they also see themselves as salesmen for a sport that seems foreign to many desert dwellers.
“Every game, we’ve got to treat like this could be the last game here for half the fans,” Upshall said. “This is our opportunity to show them that this is a good experience and a great game. Hockey’s lived in the desert now for 10 years, and we’ve got to do something more to go above and beyond what they’ve done in the past.”
With that in mind, the Coyotes have tried a variety of marketing ploys aimed at reconnecting with fans turned off by the glum off-season headlines, as well as raising the team’s profile in a crowded sports market.
The team sold out the home opener by slashing prices to $25 per seat in the lower bowl and $15 in the upper deck. This week, the Coyotes dispatched players to local shopping centres to greet residents and hand out tickets.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes are courting far-flung fans in other parts of the sprawling Phoenix metro area with discounted tickets and a shuttle service, with buses departing 90 minutes before faceoff.
Believing that media coverage helps drive ticket sales, the club is providing broadcast-quality video clips to local TV outlets that seldom cover practices or games. The Coyotes also have a former newspaper beat writer posting game stories, notes and features on their website.
The players don’t spend much time worrying about marketing schemes. They say there’s only one way to win back the fans.
Win more games.
“I mean, realistically, we need to make the playoffs,” Aucoin said. “We know that. I think the only way to draw fans back here is to do well and keep doing well.”