COMMENTARY | The hockey experiment in the desert may finally be over.
Since The Great One relocated to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988, the debate has raged over hockey's viability in "Sun Belt" states. "What is hockey doing in Dallas, or Tampa, or Atlanta, or Phoenix?" lament the detractors. "Those markets just can't support hockey," is the argument spilling from poutine holes beneath every tuque across the Great White North. "It doesn't belong there," they say, arrogantly.
So why is hockey in the Sun Belt, and should it be there?
Before I pile on with the bandwagon throng and suggest that Gary Bettman's project in Phoenix should, at long last, be put out of its misery, it must be noted that I have been staunchly opposed to the hockey-can't-work-in-Phoenix-and-it-has-to-go rhetoric throughout this exhausting process. We know the arguments all too well, as they are repeated with frequency:- The Coyotes are losing money.
- The market can't support a hockey team.
- Nobody in Phoenix cares about the Coyotes.
- Hockey can't work/doesn't belong in warm-weather climates.
The points listed above are interrelated, as each could easily be understood as a cause or effect of another on the list. All of these arguments, however, are weakened or wholly discredited when subjected to some scrutiny.
Debunking the Arguments
Sure, the organization is losing money, but so are many others in the league. In an article chronicling the NHL's economic woes, Forbes staff writer Kurt Badenhausen explained that only three franchises are making any "real money." The story revealed that 18 teams lost money during the 2010-2011 season, and that several others barely made a profit.
And although the bottom feeders on the Forbes list included virtually all of the Sun Belt teams, there were others with more distinguished histories, from more "legitimate" hockey markets. The St. Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, Washington Capitals and New York Islanders all had a negative operating income, which means those teams lost money. These are teams from traditionally strong hockey markets with rich hockey traditions.
More intriguing is the premise behind the other three arguments above. They all are grounded in the idea that Phoenix is a non-traditional hockey market, and that people in warm-weather climates simply can't like hockey. First is the suggestion that the Phoenix market is incapable of successfully supporting the Coyotes. Let's forget for a moment that the top market in the nation is home to an Islanders team that fails miserably despite a rich hockey tradition, and that there are many struggling teams in other markets that wouldn't automatically be misunderstood as incapable of supporting a sports franchise. Phoenix is home to all four "major" sports. Also, the market supports a multitude of other sports and sporting events, including collegiate athletics, NASCAR, the PGA, the BCS championship and the Super Bowl.
Next is the claim that the people in Phoenix don't care about the Coyotes. This idea is often packaged with the notion that hockey can't work in warm-weather climates. The reason these two often go hand in hand is because those that make this claim believe that people in warm-weather climates just can't like hockey. While some may contend that this is an oversimplified understanding of the argument, they can't deny that it does boil down to the difference between cold and warm climates. This despite the fact that many residents of Florida and Arizona are transplanted "snow birds" from cold-weather, hockey-friendly locations. Not only is this mindset a bit insulting, but it also fails to recognize that we exist in the modern age. Television and climate control make it possible to watch and learn about the game from anywhere, and to play it on indoor ice rinks regardless of outside temperatures.
Enough is Enough
Yes, Phoenix can support a multitude of sports. Yes, there are people in the city who like hockey, and their numbers continue to grow. And, yes, people in warm-weather climates are capable of appreciating and playing sports from colder locales just as people in cold-weather climates can enjoy warm-weather sports. If the Coyotes should go, it is not because of any of the arguments listed above.
If the Coyotes should go, it is because the ownership situation has been a huge black eye for the sport for too long. They should go because Glendale residents are being asked to contribute, year after year, to an organization that may or may not be there when the puck drops next season. They should go because all of the efforts to resolve the issues have not worked, period. Too many Band-Aids have worn out and fallen off, and the wound still festers. Every glimmer of hope, time after time, year after year, has been snuffed out by bureaucracy and red tape. Enough is enough.
Blame the Sport
Ultimately, when the hockey snobs want to rail on about how hockey can't work in the Sun Belt, they may want to point their icy, frigid fingers at the sport itself rather than the markets the teams play in. Yeah, lakes don't freeze over in Florida, or Georgia, or Texas, or Southern California, or Arizona. But that isn't necessary for people to appreciate the sport. Snow birds are real. Television and the Internet are real. Indoor ice and inline skating facilities are real.
Maybe when they argue that hockey doesn't belong in the Sun Belt, what they are actually saying is that hockey isn't good enough to appeal to people outside of the traditional cold-weather markets it has always thrived in. Maybe the sport isn't good enough to be more than a regional draw, to attract fans universally. Maybe it can't compete with sports such as soccer, or baseball, or figure skating, or even NASCAR on a stage beyond its own backyard. Maybe hockey just isn't good enough.
If we wish to assign blame for hockey's struggles in Phoenix and elsewhere, maybe we should be pointing fingers at the sport itself.
Scott DeWaelsche grew up in Phoneix, Arizona and has been an active, engaged fan of Arizona sports for more than 30 years.
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