MONTREAL – When—or if—the Phoenix Coyotes get a new owner, he can expect a warm welcome from team captain Shane Doan.
”I think we’ll all give the guy a great big hug when he comes in, if he does come in,” Doan said Monday. ”But we hope it gets done soon and it’s something we don’t have to worry about anymore.”
There is hope in Phoenix that the NHL has finally found a buyer for its orphan franchise in the Arizona desert.
The league, which took over the team after former owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2009, is looking at a reported offer of about US$170 million from Chicago trader Matthew Hulsizer, who has reportedly reached agreement with the suburban city of Glendale on a lease for Jobing.com Arena.
If it succeeds where two previous bids from other potential buyers foundered after prolonged negotiations, the Coyotes will finally be able to stop worrying that they could be sold and moved.
”It’s been good news of late,” said defenceman Ed Jovanovski. ”As players, when it happens it’ll be a good thing and good for the city of Glendale.
”It’s just stability. With (coach) Dave Tippett and (general manager) Don Maloney coming in we have great people running our team, and now to have an owner that’s committed to the team would be really nice.”
Judging from past setbacks, there’s no certainty that the deal will go through, but the NHL put out a statement last week saying it wants to act quickly, raising hope that it could be settled by mid-season.
If it is, the league will have what it wanted—an owner who wants to keep the team in Phoenix and try to make a success out of a franchise that has done little but lose many millions annually since the defunct Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996.
Doan, the only current Coyote who moved from Winnipeg, insists the club can succeed in a market that has mostly shunned hockey thus far.
He said fans began turning out late last season when the team was winning games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02, and they will come again if they keep it going.
”We really struggled as an organization for seven or eight years there,” the Halkirk, Alta., native said. ”In one playoff run when you get a decent team and you’re doing well we were sold out the last six or seven games of the year.
”The last 15 games we were over 15,000. That’s after eight years of struggling, so the fans are there and the people will support you, but if you lose there are too many options in the city to go do other things, which is understandable. No one wants to watch a team lose.”
The Coyotes are coming off a 50-25-7 campaign in which they topped 100 points for the first time despite being under league ownership.
The high drafts picks amassed when the team was losing, steady goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov and a gritty, hard-working game instilled by Tippett were key, but it also may have been the motivational jolt of being wards of the league.
The players said they blocked the ownership woes from their minds and concentrated on hockey.
”We talked about it at the start of the year and we could have gone either way—we could mope about it all the time or just go out a play,” said Jovanovski, a fourth-year Coyote. ”We’re athletes, we come to the rink and do our best, but we knew this was lurking in the background.
”It was a hot topic at the start of the year and then kind of went away. But we knew that to have a successful fan base, you’ve got to win games. It’s not like we live in Canada where people eat, sleep and breathe hockey. There’s a lot of competition in Phoenix and if you’re not the talk of the town, you’re not going to get support. We wanted to win games. We wanted to be back to the playoffs.”
The Coyotes sold out their home opener this season, but the crowds have been sparse since then. They drew an announced crowd of 6,706 for a game against Los Angeles on Oct. 21 and 8,189 against Carolina on Saturday.
”It’s been something as a group we’ve been dealing with for 18 months, but it doesn’t really change our mindset,” said forward Scottie Upshall. ”We love coming to Montreal and playing in front of 20,000 people.
”It’s a bit different from our atmosphere at home, but it is what it is and hopefully it gets settled. I thinkthere is a way it can work and that’s what everyone’s trying to accomplish. It has survived before and it’s done well before. I think winning is absolutely the deal-maker. Our job is to win.”
So far, the Coyotes have alternately won games and looked just like last season or lost games in which they appeared listless.
They’re hoping to find their rhythm again on a three-game road trip to Montreal, Ottawa on Tuesday night and Detroit on Thursday night.
Losing Doan to a three-game suspension—he returns Tuesday—and gifted young forward Martin Hanzal to an injury has not helped.
”It’s a challenge,” said Tippett, last season’s coach of the year. ”We went from a team that hoped to win to one that expects to win.
”The challenge is to be a good every game. That’s been one of the problems this year. We’ve played some very good games and we’ve played some that were not anywhere near our standard. The challenge is consistency. That’s what we did last year.”