PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Another year, another ritzy resort and another round of discussion on how the economy is impacting the business of professional hockey.
There’s a sense of deja vu as the NHL’s board of governors converge on The Inn at Spanish Bay for meetings Tuesday and Wednesday.
A year ago, the venue was the posh Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., where the league’s owners and executives heard from economists about the troubled times ahead. They’ve since spent 12 months operating in that economic climate and are now one owner short with the NHL currently in charge of the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Coyotes will be a major topic of discussion this week and not just because the other 29 teams are currently on the hook for their massive losses. On Friday night, the league announced that the Ice Edge Holdings investment group had signed a letter of intent to purchase the team with the aim of keeping it in suburban Glendale, Ariz., over the long term.
However, the announcement came with some caution.
“While much remains to be done, the NHL looks forward to working closely with Ice Edge to bring the sale to conclusion as expeditiously as possible,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
Ice Edge is a group of Canadian and American investors with five majority owners – Daryl Jones, Anthony LeBlanc, John Breslow, Keith McCullough and Todd Jordan.
Some governors are thought to be skeptical of both the sale and the viability of the Phoenix market moving forward. They’ll no doubt be interested to hear what commissioner Gary Bettman has to say on the topic because it will ultimately be up to them to approve the sale in the future.
The public was only starting to get an idea of how serious the situation was in Phoenix when the governors met last December. Team president Doug Moss spoke candidly to a small group of reporters then, admitting the Coyotes were losing “lots of money” and struggling to draw fans.
“We’ve never really released our season-ticket base,” he said. “It’s too low. That’s a number that’s too low.”
With a number of NHL teams currently experiencing problems at the gate, those words are worth remembering. The Coyotes are last in the league with less than 10,000 fans per game, but that’s understandable given the ugly bankruptcy proceedings and uncertainty that surrounded the franchise right up until the eve of the season.
But how to explain the 26th-ranked Colorado Avalanche, who are averaging under 14,000 people per game? The Denver fans who once put together a sellout streak of almost 500 games aren’t coming out to watch a team that has surprisingly hovered near the top of the Western Conference all season long.
Elsewhere, first overall pick John Tavares has done his part with a solid showing on the ice, but fans of the New York Islanders haven’t exactly flocked to watch the teenage sniper. Through 12 home games, the team is down 1,000 spectators on average from a year ago.
On and on it goes. There’s varying degrees of ownership uncertainty in Dallas, Tampa and Nashville – three teams playing in the U.S. sunbelt, a notoriously sore topic of conversation for some Canadian hockey fans.
Typically, the governors are given an early projection for next year’s salary cap figure during their annual December meeting. Some believe the US$56.8-million cap is poised to fall for the first time in league history, although not as dramatically as it might because of a strong Canadian dollar.
Overall, the six Canadian markets all appear to be on solid footing, buoyed by the 95-cent dollar. In fact, there’s expected to be some discussion about the viability of additional Canadian markets – Quebec, Winnipeg, Hamilton, a second team in Toronto – for down the road.
A side story to the board of governors meetings will come from the fast-approaching Olympic tournament.
On Monday, U.S. general manager Brian Burke spent four hours huddled with his advisory staff – David Poile, Don Waddell, Paul Holmgren, Dean Lombardi and Ray Shero – as they attempted to construct their 23-man roster. The American team had hoped to make his final decisions here, but will probably need to wait until just before Jan. 1.
The meeting got fairly heated.
“Guys are passionate about guys they like,” Burke said Monday night. “We’ve been doing this for 16 months now and guys are passionate about guys they’ve seen. It’s funny, you can watch a guy five times and he doesn’t have a good game for you and then another GM swings in and watches him three times and he’s first star three times.
“There’s some heated debate.”
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman – an alternate governor with the Detroit Red Wings – elected not to travel to California and will instead meet with his management group just before Christmas. They’ll unveil their roster on Dec. 30 in Saskatoon.