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NHL's desert experiment with Phoenix Coyotes hasn't drawn the fans


-Just steps from Arena, there's a sparkling outdoor plaza complete with restaurants, bars and stores.

Inside the arena concourse, there are pristine tile floors and all the amenities one expects from a modern big-league venue.

There is everything, it seems, except enough people willing to pay to watch the Phoenix Coyotes play hockey 41 times a year.

At least that's what majority owner Jerry Moyes concluded before placing the NHL team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this month.

While that opinion is challenged by the NHL, Coyotes minority investor John Breslow and the team's most passionate fans, it's easy to understand how Moyes might have arrived at it after losing roughly US$300 million on the Coyotes.

Commissioner Gary Bettman believes that a turnaround similar to those in Ottawa, Buffalo and Pittsburgh is possible because of a base of hardcore fans and the team's attractive five-year-old arena.

Interestingly, others think the building is a big part of the problem.

It is located in suburban Glendale, virtually unreachable by public transit and a $40 cab ride from downtown Phoenix.

While there is free parking offered to those attending a game, traffic can be a major issue, particularly for people coming from more affluent suburbs like Scottsdale.

The setup is a little reminiscent of Scotiabank Place on the outskirts of Ottawa - without, of course, the number of people who have loved the game as long as they can remember.

Even those with deep hockey roots like Mike Goldberg concede that the arena's location is a barrier.

A former play-by-play man for the Minnesota Wild and Detroit Red Wings, Goldberg now lives in Phoenix and estimates that he takes son Cole to about half as many games as he would like to.

Now the voice of the UFC - and coach of the Phoenix Polar Bears minor hockey team - Goldberg finds the Glendale commute to be particularly onerous on a school night.

He's heard the same complaint from other parents too.

"It takes away from the enthusiasm a lot of families have to go," said Goldberg, who is married to a Canadian.

"I don't know what the solution is.

They've obviously got a beautiful facility that they weren't going to get downtown.

It's just tough to get the majority of people there during the week."

When the Coyotes first moved to Phoenix, they played downtown at an arena now called the U.S. Airways Center.

However, the building was constructed for the NBA's Suns and didn't transfer well to hockey because a large number of seats were left with an obstructed view of the ice surface.

Former owners Richard Burke and Steve Ellman looked at getting their own arena in Scottsdale before eventually settling on Glendale, where the city kicked in $180 million for the project and Moyes first came on as an investor.

The Coyotes then signed a massive 30-year lease with the city that might end up being broken if bankruptcy court allows the franchise to be relocated.

As long as the team is here, it will be firmly tied to Glendale.

The location issue isn't something that longtime Coyotes fan David Stuart thinks would be a very big deal if the team was more successful.

As he points out, people don't mind travelling downtown from distant suburbs when the Suns are winning.

"I think it's just an excuse," said Stuart, who attends as many as 20 games a year.

The Coyotes finished 13th in the Western Conference with a 36-39-7 record this season and Arena stands as the only current NHL building never to have hosted a playoff game.

It's been seven years since Phoenix was last in the post-season and a staggering 22 years since the franchise advanced past the first round, dating back to a series victory by the Winnipeg Jets over Calgary in 1987.

Stuart points to the enthusiasm in the city during the few NHL playoff games played here as evidence that more success will bring out more passion from the people.

On those occasions, Coyotes fans continued the Jets tradition of having everyone in the arena wear white shirts.

"I've never seen anything like the whiteouts, people were going crazy," said Stuart.

"I know it came from Winnipeg.

I can only imagine what it was like there."

The atmosphere has been considerably more sterile since.

The Coyotes enjoyed a brief spike in attendance after Arena was opened during the 2003-04 season, but have been among the worst in the league the past three years.

The team sold an average of 14,875 tickets this season - including the thousand or so a game Moyes was buying himself in an effort to help the franchise qualify for revenue-sharing from the league.

One usher that works in the arena says that he can't recall the last time he saw the building even remotely full for a hockey game.

It's a sad reality that leaves Goldberg frustrated.

"It's hard for me to look around and see a lot of empty seats as a hockey fan," he said.

"It's tough for me to swallow.

And I'm sure it's a lot tougher for (Coyotes president) Doug Moss and the ownership and Gretz (head coach Wayne Gretzky), the front office.

"It's different than what I saw at the Xcel Energy Center and Joe Louis Arena and that bums me out because I think they do a good job."

Phoenix has traditionally proven to be a somewhat tough market for pro sports teams to gain traction.

The Suns were the first on the scene after arriving as an expansion franchise in 1968 and command the most passionate following.

The NFL's Cardinals and Major League Baseball's Diamondbacks tend to see their popularity rise and fall with wins and losses.

Without question, they all currently eclipse the local NHL team in terms of interest.

A store in the Phoenix airport sells paraphernalia from those three professional teams - along with gear from Arizona State University - but carries nothing emblazoned with a Coyotes logo.

While there's plenty of merchandise to be found at the Coyotes Den gift store inside Arena, an employee there says he rarely see TV commercials promoting ticket sales for the team.

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Coyotes games had the lowest local TV ratings of any NHL team.

Out of sight, out of mind.

"Phoenix is an odd place," explained Stuart.

"There's so many people from so many other places.

Even though there's a lot of (hockey) fans, it can be hard to find somebody who is passionate about it."

He is the type of fan who proves that a game played on ice can be attractive to someone raised in the dry heat.

Even though Stuart never had the opportunity to participate in the sport as a kid, he fell in love with it while attending minor-league Phoenix Roadrunners games with his dad back in the 1970s.

Now 41, he's still an ardent fan who even played some hockey in a men's league a few years back.

Stuart has being following the Coyotes situation closely and takes issue with the fact his city has often been characterized as a place that has no real tie to the sport.

After all, he once saw Gordie Howe play in a game at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum - a building nicknamed the "Mad House on McDowell."

"There's a lot more hockey history in Phoenix than people really let on," said Stuart.

"I grew up watching the Roadrunners.

When people say there hasn't been a history of hockey here, it's kind of like, woah, wait.

That's not really true."

Of course, the story is still to be written about what will ultimately become of NHL hockey in the desert.

With only a few months left before training camp opens in September and a potential sale of the Coyotes tied up in bankruptcy court, it seems extremely likely that the team will be back in Glendale next season - and maybe even much longer than that.

Even though the franchise has yet to turn a profit since arriving in 1996, there are still those who believe the NHL can thrive in Arizona.

"I definitely think hockey can work here," said Goldberg.

"And I speak on that from experience.

When I was in the NHL with Minnesota and Detroit, we played a lot of barns similar to what you see in Phoenix right now.

I've seen it, I've seen it in the NHL.

"There were Saturday nights in Calgary for a couple years when I was with Minnesota that were just as sparse as what you see happening in Phoenix."



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