Economic crisis hitting pro hockey clubs hard

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

Russia's Continental Hockey League appears to be in trouble.

The Phoenix Coyotes are reportedly receiving financial help from the NHL.

The ECHL has seen not just one but two franchises -- Fresno and Augusta -- fold this month.

Times are not good for pro hockey.

Time for everybody to start taking stock of the situation.

Nobody should be dancing on the grave if Russia's KHL falls apart. The league, propped up by oil and natural resources dollars that are shrinking fast as the economy sputters, is talking about rolling back salaries next season and appears to be limping to the finish line this year.

In Phoenix, Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes is looking for somebody to join him as owner of a team that's losing a ridiculous sum of money and has a horrible deal with the city of Glendale in regards to its arena -- the Coyotes actually pay a surcharge for every car that parks in the lots.

The Coyotes were behind the eight-ball from the start when they moved to the desert from Winnipeg. There was no arena in the downtown core worth staying in -- it was built for basketball and has horrible hockey sightlines -- and the community where the season-ticket base lives, Scottsdale, was not willing to pony up for a building, either.

The Coyotes are in a long-term deal with Glendale and can't move unless they want to take a drastic step and declare bankruptcy, although that's the price you pay for having an arena all but given to you.

So, the 29 other squads must ensure they keep the up-and-coming team afloat long enough for them to be a legitimate playoff team (which they seem to be on their way to becoming) and draw enough fans in a city that's been hammered by the economic crunch.

It's not a pretty picture, and likely to become worse before things turn around.

Thankfully, the world junior tournament has started and the NHL action will begin to go to another level.

It will mean some good news in what has the makings of being a depressing future.

FLAMING C-NOTES

Could it be Flames fans will receive a big eye-opening courtesy of Mitch Wahl over the next couple of weeks?

Wahl opened the world juniors with a pair of assists in Team U.S.A.'s 8-2 victory over Germany yesterday, and it's a good bet the centre from California is going to turn heads during this tournament even though he's only 18 years old and expected to be a bigger factor next year. The Flames have a couple other prospects skating in Ottawa -- Mikael Backlund of Sweden and Canadian defenceman Keith Aulie -- but Wahl, the club's second-round choice in the 2008 Entry Draft, could be one of those players who isn't heralded on draft day but turns into a big deal at the NHL level ... Speaking of Backlund, it will be interesting to see whether he does stay in North America after the world juniors. The Flames aren't keen on him skating in the AHL, where some thug would be willing to take his pokes at the skilled 19-year-old, but would love to see what he could do as a front-line player for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, who just happen to have an import hole on their roster. Backlund's team in Sweden doesn't have many games remaining, and the season could be over in early March, so it would be a benefit for him to stay here for half a season ... Flames head coach Mike Keenan said there was a reason he has now paired rookie defenceman Adam Pardy with Dion Phaneuf and has Cory Sarich with Mark Giordano, but wouldn't divulge it. Any guesses? He said the switch had nothing to do with any negatives from his team, more to counter the Anaheim Ducks.

HOCKEY TALKY

Here's a prediction, this year's New Year's Day Winter Classic tilt between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks will be even better than last year's meeting between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. With the rivalry that's been built by the Red Wings and Blackhawks through the Original Six days and rekindled the past couple of seasons, it will be a treat to see two of the league's best teams -- I'd put them second and third behind the San Jose Sharks on the list -- meet on such a big stage. Hopefully, the weather doesn't diminish the experience and instead adds to it ... It would be easy to write off the Edmonton Oilers right now, but it would not be wise until February rolls around. After last night's clash in Vancouver, the Oilers play 13 of 17 games on home ice. Their home record may be middle-of-the-road right now, but this team is too good to sit 12th in the Western Conference and has enough talent to use those games to claw back into the playoff picture ... The Nashville Predators either shut out the opposition or were shut out in three of four games before the Christmas break.

YOU DON'T SAY?

"I can't say I'm disappointed (in the first 30 games). I'm watching it progress. We're still too early. I would be disappointed if we were at Game 70 where we are today. We've got 50-plus games to go and there's a lot of time. I really believe, without question, that this team is going to be a major contender as soon as they start playing like they did (last Saturday) night."

-- Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, whose squad has not lived up to expectations


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