Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo appeared on a videoconference to unveil his team’s new president wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with: “I sure as SH** want to win.” So, like, he’s got that going for him. Not sure if he’s trying to be the NHL’s version of Mark Cuban, but it most certainly did not go unnoticed. You don’t wear a T-shirt like that on a conference with 65 media members unless you’re intent on sending a clear message.
The purpose of the proceedings was to introduce Xavier (pronounced HAV-yair) Gutierrez as the new CEO and president of the Coyotes. We are in the midst of interesting times and this was an announcement that was not insignificant, for a couple of reasons.
First, the obvious. In being named to the post Gutierrez becomes the first Latino president and CEO in NHL history, and together Meruelo and Gutierrez represent the two most powerful men in the franchise, both Latino, which is important in a market where roughly 40 percent of the fan base is Latin American.
Now, the less obvious, but every bit as important. There are two things that, above all else, determine success for an NHL franchise – ownership and leadership. They transcend every other factor, including how large a market is or whether or not it has a traditional hockey fan base. There are teams that have struggled in the most fertile hockey markets in the world, while others have thrived with no traditional connection to the game. So now it will be up to both Meruelo and Gutierrez to create an organization in the desert that has succeeded where so many others have failed. To wit: Gutierrez is the eighth man to occupy the team president’s chair since the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg in 1996. Both Gutierrez and Meruelo seemed over the moon that the Coyotes “qualified” for the playoffs this season by being in 11th place in the Western Conference when the league paused in March. There is a lot of work to do.
“We want to be the most beloved franchise in Phoenix,” Gutierrez said, “and we’re going to work every single day to try to make that happen.”
The first order of business for them will be securing a new arena for the Coyotes. Because the longer they play out of the Gila River Arena in suburban Glendale, the worse their chances are for long-term survival. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said, “Obviously, the club is not viable long-term in Glendale,” and anyone who has made the drive from Phoenix in the blinding sun during rush hour would agree. Meruelo did say that the COVID-19 pandemic had set the franchise back between six and nine months on that front, but also said hopes to have something in place by the end of 2020, but was vague on details.
“What I can tell you is this,” Meruelo said. “Xavier has moved here. My son (Alex Jr., the team’s strategic advisor, business and hockey operations) lives here, I’m not going anywhere and we’re committed to Arizona. It’s not that simple. We’re still right now currently playing in Glendale and we can’t leave tomorrow. I have to be there probably a couple more years. Glendale has expressed a tremendous amount of interest in us staying there, so I will listen to what they have to say. But we’ve also gotten a couple of offers from the East Valley, which are extremely attractive.”
Fair enough. So if Meruelo is to be taken at his word, the Coyotes are still a couple of years from really making a go of it in this market. It hasn’t helped that the team has been terrible for the better part of the past decade. So it doesn’t matter if the Coyotes move into a Taj Mahal in the middle of downtown Phoenix, they are never going to gain any traction until they put a better and more compelling product on the ice and sustain it for a good period of time. And whether or not the Coyotes do that will be determined more by the performance of Alex Meruelo and Xavier Gutierrez as much or more than any GM, coach or players.
There has not been a ton of great news for the Coyotes of late. After showing some real promise this season and emerging as a possible playoff contender, their play fell off dramatically to the point where their only entry point into the post-season was in the NHL’s COVID Invitational Tournament. And earlier this season, the Coyotes were the subject of an NHL investigation for illegally conducting pre-draft physical testing on players. It was speculated that the Coyotes had done so with as many as 20 players and that the fine for each player could be as high as $250,000, with the loss of draft picks. But Meruelo, who inherited the mess when he took ownership of the team, said he doesn’t believe it will be that severe. “I don’t believe it’s going to be substantial,” he said. “We’re dealing with it and we’ve been extremely cooperative. As soon as we have some information, we’ll let you know. We’ll see what the final results are, but I don’t think it’s going to be substantial.”
If that’s the case, the Coyotes will have dodged a major bullet on that one. Which may mean things are starting to turn for the better for the Coyotes. Gutierrez talked about when he fell in love with hockey, in November of 1991 when he watched Harvard play against RPI. He was hooked. If other hockey fans in the desert were as easy a sell as Gutierrez, the Coyotes probably wouldn’t have felt the need to hire him and they’d be doing just fine. But they’re not. And that’s why Meruelo, Gutierrez and their team have so much work ahead of them.