Anthony LeBlanc and the rebirth of the Arizona Coyotes (Puck Daddy Interview)

Anthony LeBlanc and the rebirth of the Arizona Coyotes (Puck Daddy Interview)

The Arizona Coyotes aren’t leaving the Phoenix area.

Sure, they may leave Glendale and Gila River Arena after the team’s two-year lease runs out. But leaving the desert seems unlikely at this juncture.

The area is the 12th largest television market in the United States. It has about 4.5 million people living in its confines. The state of Arizona has 7,329 USA Hockey registrants, which is more than double Tennessee, another non-traditional state with an NHL team. 

“I think there’s still confidence in the marketplace,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of circumstances that have made it difficult for that club to be successful.”

Can Arizona be a successful market?

The Coyotes haven’t posted home attendance greater than 14,000 since 2008-09 – the year all their ownership issues surfaced.

Since then, their highest average announced home attendance for a season was 13,924.

Not only have the Coyotes been fighting with their home city, they also have to fight with an incredible amount of distractions in Arizona in the winter. Between its golfing and outdoors scene, the Cardinals and the Phoenix Suns, the Phoenix area provides a large amount of activities that have nothing to do with hockey.

“There’s so much competition for your leisure time down here,” Team co-owner Anthony LeBlanc said. “Do you want to sit in a hockey arena that’s 29th in the league, or do you want to go golfing? Or do you want to go hiking the mountains or go to a NASCAR race. We understand that.”

But with this new lease, and some solidarity between the team and local government, the Coyotes and Glendale could finally nudge forward as a hockey market. 

Will they become Boston or Montreal? Of course not. But stability shouldn’t be so difficult in a city with so many people.  

And now, maybe, possibly the team’s sole focus can finally go to growing the team and not just simply survival.

“We have owners who own the Arizona Coyotes franchise, and they’re driving,” Daly said. “We’re certainly there to support their vision in the market.”

We talked to Coyotes CEO Anthony LeBlanc about the Coyotes. Their future in the desert – either in Glendale or maybe Phoenix – and how he sees the team moving forward, now that the lease stuff is behind them for at least two years.

Q: With all the issues you’ve had with the City of Glendale, can it indeed work there?

LeBlanc: It’s been a difficult summer. It was a tough summer. We’re through it. We’re past it.

I think we’ve come through this fine. There’s the mending of the relationship that needs to happen, but that began on the day of the vote a couple of weeks ago. I do think it works here, but look, it’s only a two-year deal. It would be foolish for us to not listen to expressions of interest of other potential spots in the Valley, but we do believe in Glendale. We always have. We think it’s a tremendous hockey arena. This is a great development. The Westgate development, most people don’t understand unless you’ve been here. It’s a little bit of a drive outside of Scottsdale or Phoenix, but it’s not to the level people think it is. I made a joke yesterday (at an event at Arizona State) that the arena is not on Pluto. It took me 20 minutes to drive from my office in the arena to Arizona State, which is on the other end of the Valley in Tempe. We’re in Glendale. It’s not that far.

People always talk about North Scottsdale and the wealth of North Scottsdale, there’s really no difference in the drive to Glendale vs. downtown Phoenix. It’s just a perception. I’ve said this all along that people look for excuses to not go when the team is not playing particularly well. I experienced this in Ottawa. My house was in downtown Ottawa. There were nights when that drive from downtown Ottawa to the Corel Centre, that drive felt like it took three hours on certain nights when the team wasn’t playing particularly well.

But it zipped by when I was going to playoff games.

Our issues, I really don’t think are geography. It affects us more when we have a season like last season. But when this team plays well, look at that four years ago when the team went to the Western Conference Final. You couldn’t get a seat in the building in the playoffs. Nobody had a problem driving out to Glendale. It’s fodder, it’s stuff people talk about and it is what it is.

Now that you have that lease squared away, how can this joint partnership with Glendale finally allow you to make this team a more viable business?

One of the things I noticed when I was at the council chambers two weeks ago was it was a unanimous vote to approve the lease. That’s the first time in years of either it was our group owning the team or the Jamison group or the Hulsizer group, there was never a unanimous vote in support. It was no different than when our (lease) vote was approved two years ago, it was a 4-3 vote. So there was contention. There was politics involved. There were factions that were against it. The fact we have unanimous support from Glendale City Council is a big deal for us. I felt there was a palatable difference in the mood in the chambers. It was almost a sense of relief and a sense of rebirth. Who knows what the future is going to bring. But we can at least sit down and talk as partners and talk in a much more congenial fashion than we were doing in the past. It was always very adversarial in the past. That doesn’t seem to be there. I can’t sit here and predict what the future is going to bring. I feel we have a group who wants to talk to us and make it work here. But we steadfastly believe in this. Arizona is a terrific hockey market. We hope it’s in Glendale, but we do feel that if it isn’t in Glendale, it’s definitely in the greater Valley.

In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2015, Arizona Coyotes attorney Nicholas Wood, left and team president Anthony LeBlanc, center, speak of legal action against the city of Glendale, Ariz. as they speak with the media after the city council voted to back out of an arena leasae agreement with the NHL team during a special council meeting. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2015, Arizona Coyotes attorney Nicholas Wood, left and team president Anthony LeBlanc, center, speak of legal action against the city of Glendale, Ariz. as they speak with the media after the city council voted to back out of an arena leasae agreement with the NHL team during a special council meeting. (David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic via AP) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT

When the Coyotes are good, it seems like there is definitely a thirst for hockey in the area, in spite of all the issues you’ve had in the market ... 

First off, it’s a thirst for sports. I think if you look at every pro team, so obviously the first pro team with the Suns and then I think the next would have been the Cardinals and the Diamondbacks and then us coming down. Each one of the teams have very similar and continue to have very similar …  some people would say challenges, but we think it’s opportunity. If you go to a Cardinals game if they’re playing San Francisco or Green Bay or Dallas and the same thing with the Suns, if they’re playing the Lakers or the Diamondbacks or playing the Dodgers, you’ll get a lot of people in the opposing team’s jersey, but from our perspective, do we prefer the building to be full of everyone being a Coyotes fan? Of course we do, but we also understand that there are a number of people … this is a transient market. This is a market that a lot of people, we constantly joke that when you meet someone who is a born and bred Phoenician, you go ‘Oh, you’re the one’ because with most people, that’s just not the case. You have a lot of transplants from Chicago and the Midwest and you have people from Western Canada.

We don’t have a problem when the Blackhawks are here and you’re in the building and you’re in your Blackhawks jersey, because we expect when the Blackhawks go home, you’ll show up and be in your Coyotes jersey at the next game. We think it’s a very good thing. I’ve experienced this on the other side as a fan. For a number of years I had a house in South Florida. I got right into the Panthers but when the Senators came to town I was cheering for the Senators. That was the only time of the year I wouldn’t cheer for the Panthers. They became my second-favorite team. We know that’s the way you build a fanbase in a non-traditional market. People understand the sport and are aligned to a team.

The interesting aspect for us is, and I think this is what’s happened with the Cardinals, the Suns and the Diamondbacks is their father may not cheer for those teams as a primary but their kids will. One of the interesting things we’ll be doing this year for example, it’s a little thing but it shows how we’re trying to change the perspective. If a father or a mother shows up to a game with their kids in another team’s jersey, we’ll exchange that jersey for free so the kid can get a Coyotes jersey. So we’re putting the pressure on the parent.

You may support the Sabres, but Johnny supports the Coyotes. Why don’t you ditch that Sabres jersey to get a Coyotes jersey? That’s really he focus. When you look at hockey markets that have been very successful in non-traditional markets like San Jose and Dallas, they really focus on youth and in particular youth hockey.

You don’t have to look any further than the expected No. 1 pick in next year’s NHL Draft being a Scottsdale kid. Auston Matthews played his hockey at the Ice Den and became a hockey player because his uncle took him to a Coyotes game.

He was a baseball player and like most hockey players is an all-around excellent athlete. But when he saw hockey live, he was like ‘I have to try this’ and this is a kid who is the expected No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. It’s phenomenal when you think about the impact. We certainly take a lot of the credit, and I think it’s well-deserved, for the growth of the game here, but it really … it’s pretty fascinating when you see the impact of an expected No. 1 draft pick. 

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How can Phoenix’s sporting culture make someone like Auston Matthews possible?

The difference with this market, especially people who aren’t familiar with our market, they don’t understand how big of a city this is. The region and the greater Phoenix Metro Area is like the 10th or 11th biggest metro in the United States. This is a very big metro, which is different than a Nashville or Ottawa, where I spent 20 years, which are relatively small compared to an area like Phoenix.

There’s just a lot more opportunities here. And this really is, one of the things we’ve heard over the last number of years and unfortunately it came up over the last couple of months with the situation we had with the City of Glendale, was a pride around the fact that this is a four major league team city. It’s a sense of civic pride here people have, and it’s important.

I’ve heard from the Mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, from his perspective it’s very important the Coyotes, Diamondbacks, Cardinals and the Suns are all here because there’s only a handful of cities in North America that have the ability to have four major teams.

It’s a very active community for one thing. Besides the four major sports, we’re also stops on NASCAR, we’re on the PGA Tour. There’s 15 professional baseball teams that do their spring training here. We have Arizona State in Tempe. We have the University of Arizona down the road in Tucson. This is a sports-centric culture. A lot of it has to do with the fact that this is really the only month of the year you don’t want to be outside. From a hockey perspective there has been a real growth of ice facilities in the region and that’s something we’re focusing on as a real growth plan is one of the things we talked to ASU about. This is the beginning of a partnership, but what does the future bring? If they’re looking to build a specific hockey arena for the Sun Devils that may hold 5-6,000 people, it’s a great opportunity for us to get involved and maybe add a couple of additional pads of ice.

The ice rinks here are like ice rinks in Canada. They’re just packed morning, noon and night. I walked in with one of my employees this morning and he said he was playing hockey last night at 1 a.m. at the Ice Den because that was their ice time. I think it’s a very athletic, very active market and I think that certainly helps with development of players.

You said people don’t quite understand the Phoenix market? How do you think that has that played a role in some of the coverage of your rift with the City of Glendale?

I think a lot of that coverage so to speak, and I can speak freely as a Canadian, because look, before I got involved with the Coyotes, I didn’t understand the importance of this market. I didn’t understand there’s an awful lot of hockey fans here and people don’t appreciate that. 

Throughout the majority of the hockey season, so the winter months here, there’s half a million people here just from Alberta and British Columbia alone. Then when you add the Northern states like Minnesota and Illinois, I mean probably half of this market if not more came from Northern states, and completely understand the game. The issue the Coyotes have had which is no different from non-Toronto, non-New York markets is the team hasn’t played the way they need to in order to get the fans behind them. And the times they did, prior to our taking over, there was unfortunately circumstances surrounding the club like the bankruptcy, so this team went to the Western Conference Final four years ago. But there was still uncercainty as to whether the team was going to be there next year. 

Ten or 15 years ago Chicago was averaging 4-5,000 people per game. Now they fill a 22,000 seat building because they’re a good hockey team. We understand that in a market like Phoenix we’re no different than the Suns or the Diamondbacks. The Cardinals are a little bit different because the NFL is an entity of its own. The Suns and the Diamondbacks understand that they have to be competitive because there’s so much competition for your leisure time down here. Do you want to sit in a hockey arena for a team that’s 29th in the league, or do you want to go golfing? Or do you want to go hiking the mountains or go to a NASCAR race. We understand that. And what’s been interesting and been able to fly under the radar is some of the work (general manager) Don Maloney and his staff has been able to do the last couple of years. We were terrible last year. We know that. We’re going to be a lot better this year, but look at the prospect group coming up. I mean, I talked to other presidents and CEOs in the league. They are so envious of what we’ve been able to recruit. Max Domi, Anthony Duclair. Christian Dvorak, getting Dylan Strome. This is going to be an exciting hockey team. We know that’s what we need to do to get the fanbase, ultimately is to provide the stability we’re providing from an ownership perspective. We’ve temporarily fixed the situation with Glendale. I’m not concerned about that long-term. Now we just have to provide a good winning product.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 11:  The Arizona Coyotes salute the fans following the NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena on April 11, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Ducks defeated the Coyotes 2-1.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 11: The Arizona Coyotes salute the fans following the NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena on April 11, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Ducks defeated the Coyotes 2-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

How much did the league’s support enable you to feel stable in the Arizona market at times when it seemed as if there was no stability? 

A lot of people I think don’t understand what the league has done to keep teams in certain markets. There’s no question this team is not here if it wasn’t for Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and David Zimmerman – guys at the league doing what they needed to do to fight to keep the team here. There’s no question. But we’re not the only market that’s experienced that.

I spent a lot of time in my northern residence in Ottawa. I was there for over 20 years. People forget the Senators would have been gone if it wasn’t for the league intervening. The Sabres would have been gone if it wasn’t for the league intervening. 

They know what’s best for the market, and that’s to retain franchises. There’s times like Atlanta when they moved to Winnipeg, they tried their best. Unfortunately Atlanta didn’t have an ownership group interested in keeping the team there. What happened here is Gary and Bill knew there were groups interested in buying the Coyotes and keeping the Coyotes here. The struggle was getting the appropriate arrangement with the City of Glendale, but the league believed in this market, just like they believed in the past in other markets and look at them flourishing now. Look at the Sabres. What a better example than Pittsburgh? You had a group that wanted to buy that team and relocate it. Look at them now. It shows the league stands behind their franchises almost to a point where people think it’s a fault and I think we’re going to, and I feel strongly about this, we’re going to be one of the franchises, in 3-5 years down the road that people look at and go, ‘Wow, it’s hard to believe we didn’t think that team was going to be successful.’

We think all the ingredients are there. We’ll never be the Rangers. We’ll never be the Maple Leafs, but I think we have the ability in this market in this building with the team coming up to be at least a middle of the pack team when it comes to overall revenues and those areas. I do think this has potential down the road to be a championship team.

The retired player community seems to also play a role in players wanting to come to Arizona. They love to stay in the Phoenix area.

Mike Modano never played for the Coyotes, yet he’s retired here. I was having dinner with Coach (Dave) Tippett and then all of a sudden there’s Modano sitting with us.

Look at the lockout year. They had 40-50 players including Sidney Crosby skating at the Ice Den. It took me a couple of months of living here to stop pinching myself and feeling guilty that I was living in paradise.

There’s no question July, August and September are difficult. It’s kind of the inverse of Canada. You couldn’t go outside in Canada in the winter because it’s so bloody cold, and here, yesterday was 115 degrees. It’s a little warm in the summer. But nine months out of the year, this place is absolute paradise. There’s no place in North America you want to be more than this place, and for the retired players, most live in North Scottsdale.

Players love it, and most importantly their wives and their children love it. Shane Doan, I don’t think you could pull that guy out of here with a crane.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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