Where are the fans?

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:40 PM ET

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — They came carrying signs lambasting the Goldwater Institute and supporting their Coyotes.

There were transplanted southerners from across the U.S., diehard hockey fans who’ve lived in the Phoenix area their whole lives and Canadian snowbirds clinging to their final days in Arizona.

Moms and dads, teenagers and grandparents, all foregoing a gorgeous warm evening to go to the rink and watch some hockey.

The only problem: there weren’t nearly enough of them.

Tuesday night’s game between the resilient Coyotes and fading Dallas Stars had all the makings of a full house if you played it in Canada.

The home team was on a roll in the NHL’s Wild West playoff race, 8-2-1 in its last 11 games and sitting pretty in fourth place.

But the 17,300-seat Jobing.com Arena had vast expanses of empty seats, yet again, most of them in the lower level, where the clerks at the ticket windows were asking a minimum $75 a head before the game.

That’s obviously too steep a price to pay, even for a team one skate blade away from relocating. Then again, even a $36 cushion in the upper deck is a tough sell, judging by all the empty seats up there.

If this is a Save-the-Coyotes campaign, it’s having all the effectiveness of a typical NDP election run — in Alberta.

Not that there aren’t pockets of passion here in the desert.

Larry Nelson, a Coyotes season-ticket holder for the last several years, brought his two grandsons to the game, even outfitted them with signs.

Actually, it appears the kids wrote their own.

Goldwater is a Stickhead, read one, referring to the local taxpayer watchdog group whose threatened lawsuit has stalled the pending sale of the Coyotes to Chicago investor Matt Hulsizer.

“We don’t want Goldwater even on the planet anymore,” Nelson said, and he wasn’t alone, based on the number of signs slamming the private group.

Goldwater 1,000 Jobs Lost. Goldwater Institute Enemy No. 1. Goldwater Institute can go to Winnipeg. Goldwater Sucks. You get the picture.

But the loudest message continues to be delivered in the stands on game nights.

Averaging 10-12,000 fans if it’s not a weekend simply won’t pay the bills.

And don’t think visiting players don’t notice.

“As players, we want to be as successful as we can, because of the revenue sharing,” Stars captain Brad Richards said, Tuesday.“So if it’s an empty building or it’s not working in a city, we’re always asking why and how can we make it better.

“We’ve talked about it as players many times. As a union, you never want to see a team be in trouble, or leave. But for the good of the game, if that’s the direction it has to go ... you never want to not have a team in a city that could support it.”

Richards, who’s from P.E.I., figures Winnipeg probably could. At least, the building would usually be full.

So as much as he and his teammates love visiting Phoenix in the winter, going to Winnipeg instead wouldn’t bother him in the least.

Stars forward Brenden Morrow, a product of Carlyle, Sask., agrees.

“If the team’s losing money, the franchise isn’t having success, hasn’t for a number of years, maybe it is time for it to move,” Morrow said. “But we never like to see teams leave cities. And Phoenix is a nice destination to come. But if there’s a better alternative, a team that will have success and make a profit, the players are understanding and want to see a change.”

Dallas has actually developed a decent rivalry with the Coyotes. Last night’s crowd was lively enough.

And Phoenix drew 16,000-plus for last Saturday’s game against the San Jose Sharks.

It just doesn’t happen often enough.

And no number of anti-Goldwater signs is going to change it.


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