Puck Daddy - NHL

"Attendance at Jobing.com Arena was announced at 13,377, but many of those customers must have come disguised as empty seats." -- Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, Dec. 5

That factoid above was mentioned in the third paragraph of McGran's game story from the Toronto Maple Leafs' 6-3 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes; placed higher than the identity of the game-winning goal scorer.

He elaborated on Phoenix's economic and fan-support woes in an interview on Fan 590 in Toronto as well; and, a few days earlier, wrote in the Star that the "Coyotes are believed to be hanging on by a thread," before quoting an anonymous broker as saying, "I don't see how you can build long-term support for an ice hockey team when you are located in markets where your fan base can't play hockey."

Couple those with the Globe & Mail's example of Phoenix as a market with "trouble ahead" -- and the same paper's citing of the franchise's operating losses from last season ("between $30-million and $40-million") as an example of the NHL "rotting" as Gary Bettman shoots sunshine at reporters -- and there appears to be a trend.

And that trend points to a fervent, insatiable lust for the Phoenix Coyotes to fail and relocate. Hey, maybe even to Canada!

But really, why pussyfoot around when you can just cut to the chase, as the Globe and Mail did today with its article "Coyotes face potential disaster"?

As David Shoalts writes:

The Phoenix Coyotes are expected to lose between $25- and $35-million (all currency U.S.) this year and with his primary business under financial duress, owner Jerry Moyes may not be able to cover the hockey team's losses any longer.

That leaves him three choices:

- Renegotiate the Coyotes' arena lease to effectively put the city of Glendale into the position covering some of the losses;

- Put the franchise into bankruptcy;

- Turn the keys over to the NHL, forcing commissioner Gary Bettman to find a new owner.

Shoalts even explains how the team can break its lease to relocate:

The Coyotes signed a 30-year lease with the city of Glendale, Ariz., when they moved into Jobing.com arena in December, 2003. Terms impose a large financial penalty for breaking the lease. However, if the team is placed into bankruptcy protection, or Chapter 11, the lease could be broken under U.S. law. Without the lease, the team could more easily be sold and relocated.

The paper cites sources who claim that Moyes is very eager to sell the team, despite claims that was not the case last month.

So why all this special attention on Phoenix?

For one, there's the Gretzky effect, as the coach (and defender of hockey in the desert) is hockey royalty seen wasting away in a market that doesn't appreciate him or his sport. Remember, it wasn't too long ago that Gretz was seen as the Leafs' potential savior. Canada wants its "favourite" son back.

Then there's the fact that the Canadian media generally supports more teams north of the border, and Phoenix appears to be the latest loose apple on the non-traditional market tree -- find the U.S. team struggling the most, and shake until it hopefully falls to the ground.

Atlanta, Florida and Carolina have all gone through this, too. The Nashville Predators have been in this position frequently over the last two years, depending on the stability of their ownership.

But perhaps deep down, it all comes back to Winnipeg. Perhaps the notion of "stealing one back," or simply proving that the relocation of a Canadian team to the U.S. was a mistake, is a subtle driving force behind the scrutiny, too. Not to say the Coyotes will ever become the Jets again, but there might be a measure of revenge at play in the back of some minds.

Or maybe not. Again, this is just spit-balling. The extra attention could just be a case where Phoenix is seen as a harbinger of economic doom for the NHL, and deserves to be covered as a canary in the coalmine. Just seems there's been extra attention on this franchise than on others in struggling financial times.

Of course, the easiest way for the Coyotes to make all of this disappear is to just win, baby. Make the postseason, create some buzz. Same goes for Florida, too.

One last thought on the NHL and economics. You may have heard that the WNBA's Houston Comets are folding because the league couldn't find a new owner for the team in this economy.

We've debated contraction before on this blog in regards to the NHL. So here's the question: If the League really did want to reduce its number of franchises, would the current recession provide enough "cover" for the NHL to do so without looking like a League in a death spiral? Or is there no getting around the idea that contraction means big trouble, no matter what the economy looks like?

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