Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
At the NHL’s board of governors meeting in Florida, a lot of issues are on the docket. Whether it’s discussing the league’s headshot ban, the salary cap, or revenue sharing, the leaders of the 30 NHL clubs will be crunching a lot of numbers over the next few days.
Included in that list of issues is the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes. According to reports all over the hockey world, Matthew Hulsizer of Peak6 Investments is inching ever closer to becoming the new owner of the team and purchasing the Coyotes from the NHL. His new lease agreement with the city of Glendale could be finalized at a city council meeting on December 14, and he hopes to have the sale of the team completed by the end of the year.
Hulsizer attended the meetings this morning, and he had some interesting insights into how he feels about the team as the sale draws closer to completion.
“Twenty-five years from now, I hope this will look like a smart investment,” he told reporters. “Right now, this is not a smart investment.” These statements are in line with earlier comments that he has made regarding the sale, including telling the Arizona Republic that “the truth is, I probably care more about winning than I do about money.”
Before we delve too far into what he is saying here, one thing needs to be made crystal clear: much like when Jerry Reinsdorf was looking into buying the team (and Jim Balsillie before him), Hulsizer isn’t going into this transaction blind to reality. The truth is that hockey has always been a hard sell in the desert, and the probability of failure is high. Fans haven’t exactly embraced this team, even as they made it to the playoffs last year and came within a game of beating the vaunted Red Wings, and they haven’t shown up in droves this year either.
That being said, Hulsizer knows a principal truth of business: in order to make money, you have to spend money, and that’s exactly what he seems to be aiming to do in Phoenix. The era of penny- pinching to try to minimize losses (while at the same time crippling the team’s chances of making a playoff run) are going to be over once he takes the reins. He knows that a winning product is a surefire way to drum up interest, especially in a transient-driven sports city like Phoenix.
Hulsizer knows the risks going into this deal, and the candor with which he is approaching this challenge is refreshing. A change in coaching staff or front office personnel can be used by team owners to say “hey, we’re changing! Come check us out!” A change in ownership, however, provides a unique opportunity to hit the reset button on the entire culture of a franchise, and the NHL is littered with examples of this principle being put into practice.
Five years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were on the verge of insolvency and looked to be headed out of Steel City. Mario Lemieux swooped in, bought the team, hit it big with a couple of draft picks (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) and a mere five years later has a fresh championship banner hanging from the rafters of a brand new arena that the team built after recently being quite close to leaving town.
A similar situation happened with the Chicago Blackhawks, who under Bill Wirtz were a laughingstock franchise ranked as the worst-run team in professional sports. After Wirtz died and his son Rocky took over, the team made some key personnel moves, some PR splashes, and before you knew it they were selling out the United Center every single night. They also have their own Stanley Cup win to hang their hats on.
While the Phoenix situation has similarities to the Hawks and Pens, it has its own challenges as well. Both Pittsburgh and Chicago are considered “hockey cities”, with a rich tradition of excellence that goes back to the Original Six era and the first expansion of the league. The Coyotes are, like most of the residents of the Valley, a transplanted entity, moved to Arizona from Winnipeg during the mid-90’s. The hockey tradition there isn’t exactly littered with excellence, with several incarnations of the Phoenix Roadrunners serving as the only real hockey legacy there.
The main issue facing the Coyotes is that they don’t have very much traction on the Phoenix sports landscape. People in Arizona have always been drawn to baseball, with teams like the Cubs and Giants holding spring training there for many years and paving the way for the Diamondbacks to come in 1998. The Phoenix Suns have also enjoyed a long period of interest from fans, as they play an up-tempo style of basketball and came extremely close to multiple NBA Finals appearances in the middle of the last decade. Even the NFL’s Cardinals, a transplant team that moved from St. Louis in the 1980’s, have had some modest success, reaching the Super Bowl two years ago.
While the Coyotes have made the playoffs several times during their tenure in Arizona, they have never advanced past the first round, and this reputation for just barely squeaking into the playoffs and nothing more has really hurt their chances to gain traction with fans, especially young ones. With financially-motivated decisions keeping the team from bringing in star talent and shipping off players on the verge of stardom, the Coyotes have deprived themselves for many years of marketable talent for the sake of minimizing financial losses. Hulsizer, at least judging by his words, looks poised to change that.
His passion for hockey is something that fans can really take heart in. After years of listening to Jerry Moyes bemoan his fate and all of the money that he was losing, hearing an owner talk candidly about knowing that his team is going to lose money, but not care about it, is a refreshing change of pace.
This mindset may strike some as naive, but in reality its one of those “crazy like a fox” strategies. A willingness to spend money is the only way that a team like the Coyotes has the potential to make it out of the doghouse and into the penthouse, and Hulsizer seems to realize that. Both his love of hockey, and the reserves of cash from the successful investment firm he runs, are propelling him forward as the type of owner that the league had in mind when it set about to find someone to keep the team in Phoenix.
If fans in the Valley are going to respond to anything with this team, it will likely be the message that Hulsizer is putting out there. Sure, he’d love to make a profit on this deal, and sure he’d love it if the team became relevant, not just in Arizona but league-wide. Will he curse his bad luck if it doesn’t? Likely not, but this is for certain: it will not be for a lack of trying. He is the perfect owner for this team, and if anyone is going to bring this team to prominence, it’s going to be Matthew Hulsizer.