Since 2009-10, the Phoenix Coyotes have been a playoff contender in the NHL’s Western Conference.
What’s impressive is they’ve accomplished this feat against the backdrop of uncertainty over their future in Arizona.
Since being placed into bankruptcy by former owner Jerry Moyes in May 2009, the Coyotes were nearly sold by Moyes to Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie, only to have that sale thwarted when the league stepped in and made a successful bid for the club during the bankruptcy hearings, purchasing the team from Moyes for $140 million.
Efforts to sell the team to Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Ice Edge Holdings group, and businessman Matt Hulsizer have since fallen through.
Despite these setbacks, the league continues its quest to find a prospective owner willing to keep the Coyotes in their current location.
League deputy commissioner Bill Daly informed the board of governors during its annual meetings this past week that efforts to find new owners were ongoing, claiming there were “continuing discussions with a couple of potentially interested purchasers.”
Hockey, fans for the most part, remain puzzled as to why the league has fought so hard to keep the Coyotes in their current location, especially given the quick relocation last summer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
The Thrashers move, however, was under different circumstances. Its ownership had tried unsuccessfully for several years to find new owners willing to keep the team in Atlanta, but when none turned up, had no choice but to sell to True North Sports and Entertainment.
Having taken over ownership of the Coyotes for the past two years, the NHL board of governors wasn’t willing to take on another troubled franchise.
The main reason the league wants to keep the Coyotes in their current location is Phoenix is one of the largest cities, metro areas, and media markets in the United States, which the league believes could become a considerable source of revenue.
Having already lost Atlanta, the league would prefer not to lose another major American market.
Cynical observers scoff at this notion, pointing to low attendance numbers during much of the Coyotes existence as proof the Phoenix area isn’t a hockey market.
That view, however, overlooks the fact the team was poorly run and managed for a number of years, resulting in a mediocre product, a seemingly steady parade of their best players dealt away in lop-sided trades or lost to free agency, and a disillusioned fan base.
Critics cite the club’s poor attendance during the past two seasons as “proof” sports fans in the Phoenix area don’t care about hockey.
When one considers, however, the team has been under threat of relocation for over two years, it’s little wonder Arizona sports fans are leery about throwing their support to a team which could be gone the following year.
Despite the uncertainty, in September it was reported season ticket renewals were the highest in a decade, while overall ticket sales were up 25 percent from last year.
Still, with their average home attendance after 13 home games this season the lowest in the league at just less than 11,000 per game, it’s clear that uncertainty is still having an impact, despite the Coyotes solid play.
Time is of the essence. The Coyotes were close to being moved earlier this year, until the city of Glendale, where their home arena is located, agreed to pay the league $25 million to cover part of the team’s losses while the two sides continued to seek a new owner.
It’s believed if no owner can be found by next spring, the Coyotes will be relocated to another city in time for the 2012-13 season.
If the Coyotes are moved, it will have an impact on the new realignment plan recently approved by the Board of Governors.
The Coyotes are currently grouped in “Conference A” along with the three California-based franchises, the two Alberta-based teams, plus the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche.
It’s believed the new alignment would allow for flexibility in the event the Coyotes are to be relocated.
Should they move to Seattle, which has been rumored as a potential target for an expansion or relocated franchise, they could stay in their current conference without any sort of shakeup required.
The two Western-based Conferences have eight franchises each, and the two Eastern-based ones have only seven allowing room for a potential move to the East, perhaps to a market like Quebec City, which intends to construct a new arena in hopes of enticing an NHL franchise.
As the uncertainty over the future continues, the Coyotes – who entered this weekend atop the Pacific Division – play on, hoping to make the playoffs for the third straight season and finally win their first playoff round since 1987.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.