Life ain't easy for Gretzky

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It was another sunny day in the Arizona desert, but for Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, there are more clouds than ever.

Selling hockey in the sunshine states has never been easy for the NHL and with the economy in the toilet and the Coyotes an underachieving .500 team, it's even tougher now.

"It's hard, there's no question about it," Gretzky said yesterday after practice in preparation for tonight's meeting with the Maple Leafs. "Our team hasn't been good for a few years and we are a younger team but those are excuses. The better the team is and the more exciting they are to watch, the more support we are going to get."

The Coyotes actually are one of the few teams from the so-called struggling markets that are up in attendance, though it is hardly a financial windfall. The team is averaging 14,704 fans through 12 home dates, up from 13,661 last season.

MARKETING

Part of the reason is innovative marketing and aggressive seat sales. The team's recently announced "Howliday Pack" promotion allows fans to get ticket to four games for the price of three.

"If we win, we're good," Coyotes forward Shane Doan said. "There's so many people in the valley, so many Canadians here. If you're winning, they will come."

Gretzky recognizes the challenge of the market, but also sees a region that loves its sports under the right circumstances.

"Are we a Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary? Absolutely not," Gretzky said. "But there's room here for a hockey club. It's a great sports city.

"It makes economic sense that teams can't continually lose money or you have to look for alternatives," he said. "I can't speak for the teams in Florida or other teams, but our team isn't going anywhere."

By logical extension, Gretzky won't deny the league could boost its health by looking north of the border.

"Could another team survive in Toronto?" Gretzky asked. "Absolutely. We all know that, especially people who grew up there or are from there."

"Hockey has gotten so big in Canada and the wave they are riding into the 2010 Olympics is going to be another push. The only worry I have is the Canadian dollar."


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