The hockey world hasn’t heard a whole lot from Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo since he took over majority ownership of the team a little more than 10 months ago. But that all changed in a big way on Monday afternoon when the Coyotes hosted a videoconference to introduce their new CEO and president, Xavier Gutierrez.
The day was supposed to be devoted to Gutierrez, the first Latino CEO and team president in NHL history, but it was actually Meruelo whose comments were most newsworthy. First, he appeared on the videoconference sporting a T-shirt that said, “I sure as SH** want to win.” We’re going to go ahead and assume that he did not rip a page from the Jeremy Jacobs Ownership Playbook on that one. But good on him anyway. For too long, the goal of this team’s owners was basically to keep the Coyotes on life support, forget about winning anything. Meruelo is a billionaire who fell from the heavens for this franchise and if his word is good, he has every intention of keeping the Coyotes in the desert. Even said he hopes to have an arena deal in place by the New Year. Good luck with that one.
Meruelo also had a couple of other interesting things to say, one of them fairly benign, the other not so much.
When asked about the NHL’s return-to-play plan and what hub city might include the Coyotes, Meruelo was downright bullish on Vegas. “I have been voicing my opinion with Gary (Bettman) that of all the cities that have been spoken about, I think the best for us, the most attractive one, would be Las Vegas,” Meruelo said. “So Las Vegas makes sense for us. I think he's listened to our request very strongly.”
Nothing terribly earth shattering there. Vegas has been considered a front-runner as a hub city since the NHL came up with the concept. It has the capabilities to handle 12 teams from a standpoint of hotels and it actually has a pretty good setup when it comes to ice surfaces. No one would be surprised to see Vegas get the nod. In fact, the opposite would be the case. Aside from the oppressive summer heat, Vegas would make an ideal location. And if it’s chosen, there’s a good chance it will also be the host for the Stanley Cup final, meaning the Cup would be awarded in Vegas for the second time in three seasons.
Meruelo’s other musing was a lot more contentious. He was asked about the NHL’s ongoing investigation into the Coyotes’ alleged recruiting violations. The Coyotes are being investigated with holding illegal pre-draft fitness testing with a number of players in the Canadian Hockey League. There are reports that Coyotes scouts would sometimes show up unannounced at venues and expect to have draft prospects be tested immediately after their games.
There was speculation that the league was going to lower the boom on the Coyotes, possibly to the tune of a $250,000 fine per player and a loss of draft picks. Considering there were believed to be at least 20 players who were tested, that’s a possible $5 million fine. But Meruelo said he doesn’t believe the NHL will be that harsh in its sentence. "We are cooperating with Gary Bettman and the NHL and I don’t believe (the penalty) is going to be substantial,” Meruelo said. “I don’t believe that’s the case. But we’re dealing with it, we’ve been extremely cooperative and when we have more information, we’ll let you know. I don’t think it’s going to be substantial.”
If that is indeed the case, there are going to be amateur scouts from 30 other teams – possibly even 31 with Seattle – who are going to be livid. They would have viewed what the Coyotes did as an egregious indiscretion, one that clearly crosses the line in a normal hockey season and one that many of them would never think of attempting. But at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled the Draft Combine and taken away all their abilities to have the prospects fitness tested, it’s particularly galling. “They put those rules in for a reason,” one scout said. “Can you imagine what would happen if 31 teams were going around wanting to test kids in season? So if they’re not going to enforce it, they might as well strike it from the books. From what I understand, it’s going to be some bullsh-- fine and a slap on the wrist with picks.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TheHockeyNews.com that there is nothing to report on either the hub cities or the Coyotes’ situation.
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