Coyotes' long road to ruin

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:48 PM ET

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — It reached 100 degrees on my last day in Phoenix, the second earliest they’ve ever hit triple digits in the Arizona city.

There was a hockey game that night, too, the Coyotes hosting Colorado.

And it was April Fool’s Day.

A perfectly ludicrous combination, you might say.

Only a fool would fight to keep the NHL in the Grand Canyon State, right?

After spending the better part of a week there, attending a pair of Coyotes games and talking to dozens of fans, staff, players, coaches and average Joes, I can see why commissioner Gary Bettman is on this long donkey ride — even if the crooked path might eventually wind its way up to Winnipeg.

I also have a hard time disagreeing with Moosomin, Sask.’s Dave Tippett, the Coyotes head coach, when he says there’s a lot of “untapped potential” in the Valley of the Sun.

“To think it for sure can’t work here, that assumption would be wrong,” Tippett told me. “To say it can — it’s untold.”

Before you assume the heat fried my brain, or what’s left of it, answer this: how do you suppose a team in Winnipeg would do if it had owners who treated it like a second-class commodity, building an arena out at Assiniboia Downs and hiring an $8-million figurehead as head coach — while missing the playoffs seven out of eight years?

Oh, and for good measure, after that eight-year run of ineptitude, your owner tries to jettison the team to the U.S., out the back door of bankruptcy court, in the middle of a recession rivalling that of the early 1980s.

Never mind the move to the Downs. You think we’d fill our downtown barn for the next eight years under the rest of those circumstances?

Sure. And I’ve got a nice little plot of land to sell you. Lot No. 538, a quaint piece of sundried desolation 20 minutes outside of Glendale, complete with your own cactus and a view of the mountains.

Not sure if that sounds any more unappealing than a Coyotes ticket in recent years.

“Last year was the first year this team made the playoffs in eight years,” Tippett said. “I don’t care where you are, other than in a Canadian city, that’s not going to work that well.”

I’m not sure how well it would work in Winnipeg, either.

Having said all that, there’s no doubt in my mind Winnipeggers would be willing to spend far more than fans here.

I asked about a dozen people what they paid for tickets, and nobody averaged more than $21 per game.

And I thought the ’Peg was discount city.

The lowest walkup price for an upper bowl seat was $36 at the window, but I didn’t find anyone who paid even that. At Jobing.com Arena, the upper bowl fills up before the lower.

Something else that stood out: half the luxury suites were empty, a stark contrast to a basketball game downtown, where they were packed, along with the stands. And that’s with the Coyotes streaking towards the playoffs, the NBA’s Suns playing out the string.

We may never find out how well a properly managed hockey team could do down in the desert, as the deal that would see Chicago’s Matt Hulsizer take over is hanging by a frayed, sunbeaten thread.

But it’s obvious why Bettman is doing all he can to pull it up over the edge, to a safe landing in a city doing its own balancing act.

After pouring $180 million in taxpayer funds into a building, Glendale politicians are precariously reaching for anything to prevent the big financial fall, even if it means flushing good money after bad.

Because, long-term, it just might work.

That may not be what you wanted to hear.

A Winnipegger is supposed to come back from Phoenix mocking the uninformed hockey peasants of the south, proclaiming death to their imaginary kingdom.

Sorry, that’s not the way I see it.

Don’t worry, though, if all fails in Phoenix, there’s always Atlanta, where the mercury reached a pleasant 58F on April Fool’s Day.

And the donkey trail to Winnipeg doesn’t pass through the Grand Canyon.

GETTING TO THE GAME

Getting to Jobing.com Arena in Glendale appears to be simple enough. It’s just off the 101 Loop, Phoenix’s version of Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway.

But the Sun’s Paul Friesen found it was no easy task, especially at game time on a weekday.

Driving from northern Scottsdale, at East Bell Road (not far from the Scottsdale Municipal Airport), the trip took nearly an hour, all on multi-lane freeway jammed with end-of-the-work-day traffic.

Considering a good portion of the team’s fan base was built in Scottsdale, the move by then-owners Steve Ellman, Jerry Moyes and Wayne Gretzky to Glendale in 2003 was ill-advised.

ARENA LOCATION A KILLER

It may have been the decision that killed hockey in Phoenix: the Coyotes building a new arena in the West Valley, abandoning many fans in the affluent suburb of Scottsdale.

“No question, that’s been a problem,” former Winnipeg Jets and Coyotes assistant GM Mike O’Hearn, who still lives in Phoenix, said. “A good portion of the fan base at the time, the season ticket base, a lot was coming off the East Side Valley.”

Fan Nate Wisniewski, a 21-year-old college student, is one of them.

“This arena was supposed to be made in Mesa or Scottsdale,” Wisniewski said, as he entered Glendale’s Jobing.com Arena for a game. “I’m from east Mesa, so that’s a good 45-minute, hour drive down here. If they’d have put it there ... they would have done way better on attendance.”

The Coyotes share the area with a glitzy new stadium used by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

“It works for football because it’s only eight games,” first-year hockey season-ticket holder Ashley Bowie said.

“This is a drive for anybody to come out here,” her husband, Tyler, added.

GOOD CROWDS BEAT GOOD WEATHER

The way a handful of visiting Dallas Stars players were talking as they left Jobing.com Arena after a recent practice, some NHLers obviously feel hockey is finished in Phoenix.

“What are they going to do with this place when they move?” asked one.

“What a shame,” said another. “The building was full when it was downtown.”

In interviews, the players we talked to didn’t mind the prospect of road trips to Winnipeg in the middle of winter.

“What is it, Portage and Main, the coldest corner in the world?” asked Stars captain Brenden Morrow. “I think we’d be able to put up with that corner to have a full building.”

Assistant captain Mike Richards says it’d be no different than going to Edmonton or Calgary.

“The fans are great. I’m sure Winnipeg would be very excited ... it’d be a sold-out building,” Richards said.

Like Edmonton, attracting and keeping free agents could be a challenge.

“It might be a little tougher to get some of the European players to come,” Phoenix captain Shane Doan acknowledged.

JUST THE TICKET

Ticket prices are always a hot topic, whenever talk of the NHL's return to Winnipeg comes up.

We went to the horse's mouth to find out what fans in Phoenix pay.

Here's what they told us — and imagine how much more revenue a team in Winnipeg would earn, at probably double the price.

— Nate Wisniewski, attends 10-15 games at $21/game (upper level).

— Kate and Eddie Clark, attend maybe 20 games, average $20.

— Jeff and Fran Fries, season-ticket holders for five years, pay around $600, each (approx. $14/game).

— Ashley and Tyler Bowie, first-year season-ticket holders, pay $700 each (third row, upper level, approx. $17/game).

— Christine Eyde, attends 15-20 games, average $20/game.

Low-price, upper-level seats were popular with 'Yotes fans.

Ticket packages are significantly discounted. Walkup prices started at $36/game in the upper level.


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