The Arizona Coyotes officially have a new majority owner. The sale to billionaire Alex Meruelo has been completed, meaning former No. 1 guy Andrew Barroway is now a minority stakeholder. In Meruelo, the Coyotes have a deep-pocketed businessman whose empire includes a Las Vegas casino, a chain of pizza places, real estate and construction companies and even TV and radio stations.
The Coyotes had a pretty nice summer, acquiring a proven goal-scorer in Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh and a middle-six center in Carl Soderberg from Colorado. Arizona hasn’t made the playoffs in the past seven seasons, but progress was made under second-year coach Rick Tocchet. In an iffy Pacific Division, this team has a chance to make the post-season in 2019-20.
The situation Meruelo is walking into is only partially about the on-ice product, however. Since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996, attendance has largely been spotty. One of the main reasons has been the remote location of the team’s current arena. Gila River Arena is in Glendale, which is only technically 15 miles from Phoenix, but that drive takes a lot longer due to traffic.
So here’s where things get interesting. Meruelo didn’t become a billionaire by getting suckered in business deals and he obviously knows that the team can’t survive in Glendale. Reading the tea leaves, Meruelo’s purchase practically guarantees this franchise will be getting a new building in Arizona in the next few years. Meruelo has the deep pockets to keep everything humming until that time, but make no mistake: you don’t buy a team just to lose money year after year without some sort of assurance that the business plan can be turned around. Will a new arena be the answer to Arizona’s attendance problems? Only time will tell. But you have to try something new and Meruelo gives the Coyotes that chance.
The notion that hockey doesn’t work in Arizona is unfortunate because of the arena situation. As the Vegas Golden Knights proved right off the hop, hockey can certainly work in the desert if you have solid ownership and a rink that people can get to. Going to the Stanley Cup final right away doesn’t hurt, either (I mean, I’m not wrong here…).
Now it’s time to get this franchise in gear. The Coyotes have seen numerous owners and ownership groups – plus the NHL taking over at one point – over the years and none have stuck. But Meruelo has the cash and that’s key. If he can make it work, he’ll have a friend for life in commissioner Gary Bettman, not to mention all of those who love hockey in Arizona. With the NCAA’s Arizona State Sun Devils making their first national tournament this past spring (and currently barnstorming in China) and Arizona native/Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews one of the most visible players in the game, there is something to build off here. Hopefully for long-suffering fans, Meruelo can be the catalyst.