Living in Chicago, I am blessed that our city has a stable hockey franchise, one that has never operated under the dark cloud of moving to another city, or even of falling into a horrible state of financial ruin.
The same cannot be said, however, of the fans of the Phoenix Coyotes, a team who has defined the term “desert wanderers”. They have always operated under the scrutiny of the entire hockey world, a world that always has felt that the Coyotes are an inferior club in an inferior market, and that they didn’t deserve any special attention from the NHL, nor did they deserve to be saved.
Well, these cynics and hockey “purists” who have long desired to see Sun Belt hockey fail miserably may have finally gotten their wish. With the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the Coyotes this afternoon, it looks as though the way has been paved for the ‘Yotes to be sold to businessman Jim Balsillie, and if that sale goes through, he will move the team to Southern Ontario.
This move is being welcomed by a lot of NHL fans, who think that the idea of the team moving from its financially precarious position in the desert will improve its fortunes.
I cannot deny that the team has been really poorly run. I also cannot deny that there is a very real chance that the team cannot be profitable at all in Phoenix. Finally, I will also admit that most of the people who complain about the lack of passion in Phoenix for the team are probably right. The Coyotes certainly run fifth in terms of Phoenix sports passions (behind the Suns, Cardinals, golf, and the Diamondbacks, in that order), and ever since they’ve moved to Glendale, a western suburb, there has been a lot of belly-aching that the team is too far away to justify the drive.
I will, however, be sad to see the Coyotes leave town, if in fact that is the course that events take. I am by no means saying that I want the team to remain in the desert, profits be damned, but for a guy like me, it always sucks to see an experiment that had a good start end up failing, especially in a city I love as much as Phoenix.
The Coyotes, unfortunately, were victims of a perfect storm of circumstances. Some of these were certainly of their own making, but there were other unfortunate realities that certainly did not help them.
The first one of these realities is the transient nature of the fan base of the area. Phoenix is mostly made up of people who are from other areas of the country, and therefore it takes about an entire generation for a fan base to completely develop. The Suns are only in recent years seeing the full effect of being in the area for a long period, selling out most games and being the most popular sports team in town.
The Diamondbacks and Coyotes, however, aren’t that fortunate. Where as baseball has a long time following in the area (with the Cactus League and the Phoenix Firebirds), hockey was still a very new enterprise for the city. When the Coyotes moved to the area, they shared an arena with the Suns in downtown, and they saw modest profits, as well as modest success on the ice. Then, two different events led to their seeming demise.
The first event was the move from the downtown US Airways Center (then America West Arena) into the brand new Jobing.com Arena in Glendale. This had immediate negative impacts, and not just because of the hockey only nature of the arena. It was also way out on the west side of town, and there was absolutely nothing out there for people to do before or after the game, and so it wasn’t exactly a happening place.
Now, the area has been built up significantly, with the WestGate shopping center, University of Phoenix Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and various other activities. The aura around the team, however, didn’t grow along with the ambiance around the arena.
The other significant event that devastated hockey in the Phoenix area was the NHL lockout. While the lockout had a huge impact on the league as a whole, it especially killed hockey in Phoenix, because of the success of the Suns and also of the opening of the new Cardinals stadium. The area sports community effectively was able to tune the Coyotes out because of all of the other happenings, and the team never recovered.
Even with these two death blows, I still had faith in the team, and hoped for the longest time that they would be able to overcome their struggles and continue to play in the desert. Whenever I found myself in the valley, I would check out the schedule, and if the ‘Yotes were in town, I made it a point to drag my dad and my grandfather over to Jobing.com to see the team play. It didn’t matter if they were playing the Sabres, Penguins, or my beloved Blackhawks, I was committed to trying to support the team however I could.
My efforts, however, were matched by a passionate but tiny group of fans, and that is part of the reason why the franchise is on the brink of leaving. All of the memories I have of attending Coyotes games, of trying to convince people on the internet and in the city itself that hockey in Phoenix should be allowed a chance to succeed, have now been flushed down the drain in one fell swoop.
I may sound bitter, but to be completely honest, this latest development is certainly not a surprise to me. I had a feeling for the entire season that this may be the last one that will be played in the Phoenix area. That is why when I went to Phoenix in January, I insisted on seeing the Coyotes play one last time.
In a game against the Buffalo Sabres, I got to see everything I love about the game: hard-hitting, great defense, plenty of offensive opportunities, and a great goaltending performance by Ryan Miller. The Sabres won the game 2-0, but in the end, it wasn’t about the final score. It was about the fact that I actually got to wear shorts to a hockey game, and that some of the people that I met at the arena that night were among the friendliest I’ve ever met at an NHL rink.
I am going to miss all of those things about the Coyotes. When all is said and done, I’m sure that the league will agree with me that Phoenix was an opportunity that had too much working against it, and one that I wish would have certainly made it good in the area.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.