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The Inevitable Relocation Of The Phoenix Coyotes

Ann Frazier |
February 20, 2013 | 9:29 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Keith Yandle and company may need to pack their bags very soon. (Michael Wifall/Wikimedia Commons)
Keith Yandle and company may need to pack their bags very soon. (Michael Wifall/Wikimedia Commons)
The silence has been deafening.

Jan. 31 was the deadline the city of Glendale had given Greg Jamison’s group to raise funds to buy the Phoenix Coyotes. That date came and went with no indication that Jamison was even close. Since that date, there has been little news out of Phoenix about any other potential buyer.

The writing, therefore, is on the wall: the Phoenix Coyotes will not be in Phoenix in the 2013-14 season.

How did a team in such a large market fail so publicly and spectacularly? It all goes back to performance both on and off the ice; the Phoenix Coyotes have not been a successful team. This is due to a myriad of factors, including but not limited to hiring Wayne Gretzky as head coach (Gretzky was as bad at coaching as he was good at playing) and ill-advised arena placement. The Coyotes have been losing money hand over fist, needing emergency influxes of money from the NHL in order to keep running.

The Coyotes’ situation, though concerning, did not present itself as the huge problem that it is today until Cinco de Mayo 2009.

On May 5, 2009, then-owner Jerry Moyes declared Chapter 10 bankruptcy, intending to immediately sell the team. Moyes was never very interested in owning a hockey team, often trying to unload the team although never finding any takers. But in 2009, he finally found someone. The buyer? Jim Balsillie, at the time the co-CEO of Research in Motion.

Balsillie had been a potential NHL team buyer before. He first targeted the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Nashville Predators, two teams that were in similar situations of ownership crisis. In each attempt, Balsillie made no attempt to hide his desire to immediately move teams to his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario; he even sold season tickets for the Hamilton Predators before the NHL ultimately nixed the deal due to his underhanded practices.

Like with the Penguins and Predators, the NHL did not allow Balsillie to purchase the Coyotes. In an effort to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix (a large, mostly untapped market that, if successful, could bring a lot more revenue into the NHL), it purchased the team and set out to find an owner who would be dedicated to the Phoenix Coyotes.

The NHL bought the Coyotes on Nov. 2, 2009. Over three years after that purchase - and nearing four years for the overall ownership saga - the NHL still owns the team.

There have been a handful of serious buyers over the years: Ice Edge Holdings, Jerry Reinsdorf and Matthew Hulsizer were all trumpeted by the NHL as the future owners of the Phoenix Coyotes, only to bow out due to lack of funds. And then former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison arrived on the scene, heralded by the NHL the most of all, seen as the last great hope for hockey in Phoenix.

But when the NHL emerged from the four-month lockout with no news on the Jamison bid, there was writing on the wall. It was no secret that Gary Bettman would have loved to emerge from the owner-caused labor stoppage with some positive news about ownership to announce. Instead, there were only bland statements about how Jamison was continuing his attempts to raise the funds.

That all came to a halt when Jan. 31 came, and Jamison announced he could not purchase the Coyotes. It is over. It has been four years, and the only buyers who have enough capital are the ones who want to move the Coyotes out of Glendale. Other teams in the NHL with much higher price tags have been bought and sold during the Coyotes saga, meaning that the desire to own an NHL team exists, but the desire to own an NHL team in Phoenix does not.

But where will they go? As of right now, there are two candidates who have expressed an interest in attracting a struggling NHL team.

Even since the Quebec Nordiques left in the mid-90s due to a similarly fraught ownership situation, Quebec City has expressed an interest in getting an NHL team back. The hockey-mad city even has a political party dedicated to bringing an NHL team back to the francophone town. However, there are a few issues with their bid.

Unlike Montreal, the existing Quebec team which has a large bilingual population, Quebec City residents primarily speak French. This is an issue for the many NHLers who struggle to speak English; there will be an expectation for any non-North American player in Quebec City to essentially be trilingual.

Also, Quebec City, with a population of around 500,000, would be the second smallest city in North America with a professional sports team, trailing only Green Bay, Wis. In a league that is gate-driven, would that population be enough to sustain an NHL team for 41 home games per season?

But the most important hurdle is the lack of an NHL-ready arena in which to play. While the city is building the Quebecor Arena, it is not slated to be open until 2015. Until then, the Colisee Pepsi - built in 1949 - remains the only arena in the area, an arena that has a hockey capacity of 15,176.

The second option stands as the only American option, a city that was technically the first American city to win the Stanley Cup: Seattle. Seattle, with its sports-mad population and proximity to Canada, seems like an obvious choice if an American city were to get an NHL team. But why hasn’t Seattle been at the forefront of the relocation talks until now? Simple: the Sacramento Kings.

With the Maloofs’ pending sale of the Sacramento Kings to a Seattle-based group that will see the Kings relocate to Seattle, construction on a new arena will go forward to host the NBA team. Key Arena’s ability to host hockey games (or lack thereof) was one of the key reasons why Seattle had not been in relocation discussions; with a guaranteed new arena, Seattle jumps to the vanguard of relocation destinations.

And, in my opinion, the Coyotes are going to Seattle. An untapped, American market that not only is known for being passionate about sports but can also be propped up by rabid Canucks fans in lean times is the best case scenario for the NHL in this relocation saga. The only delay is waiting for the approval of the sale of the Sacramento Kings; the arena deal hinges on an NBA team, not an NHL one. It would not be surprising to hear the Coyotes are moving to Seattle only days after the Kings deal is approved.

Phoenix, as much as Gary Bettman would hate to admit it, is essentially done as an NHL city. It was due to prolonged mismanagement that was only exacerbated by the three-year bankruptcy saga, and it likely could have been avoided. But barring any last-minute white knights, expect to see the Coyotes in Seattle - or Quebec City - this time next year.

Reach Staff Writer Ann Frazier via email or follow her on Twitter.



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