Coyote question: Is Phoenix an NHL market?

Gary Bettman bristled at the number and the insinuation. Six thousand seven hundred six. That was the attendance for a Phoenix Coyotes game a couple of weeks ago, and that can be used as too-easy evidence that hockey doesn’t work in the desert.

“This is a franchise that still doesn’t have an owner, OK?” said the NHL commissioner, who oversaw the Winnipeg Jets’ move to Phoenix in 1996 and now is overseeing another sale of the team. “And until we iron it out and lock it down, there will be uncertainty. And until the uncertainty is resolved, for anybody to judge the interest level of that market in the face of everything that’s happened and all the uncertainty, is a little unfair.”

Maybe. But only a little. After all, isn’t the interest level of that market a root cause of the ownership uncertainty? Even if the NHL can iron out the issues and lock down a deal with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer, after a long soap opera starring owners and potential owners, it remains to be seen whether the Coyotes can thrive in Phoenix.

Off-ice problems aside, the Coyotes have a keeper in netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Winning is supposed to be the No. 1 cure for a franchise’s ills. But it hasn’t been enough for the Coyotes, at least not yet, and this season has shown that a lack of fan support and media attention can have a direct, negative impact on winning, making the situation even more difficult.

Bettman won’t discuss contraction. David Stern, his NBA counterpart and mentor, might bring up the issue – if only as a bogus bargaining chip to use in labor negotiations. It isn’t in Bettman’s interest to even bluff about it.

He doesn’t want relocation, either. His mandate was to make hockey a national sport in the United States, and a big part of his legacy will be determined by the league’s success in the Sunbelt. The NHL fought against a potential move of the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ont. Turning back to Winnipeg would be a last resort.

But can the Coyotes turn it around in Phoenix? Forbes ranked the franchise’s value as last in the league at $138 million. The team has bled money, and taxpayers reportedly will pay more than $100 million to cover costs for Hulsizer, even though they have not been buying tickets.

“I’m not sure if you had an owner or not if that was going to change the fact that you had 6,700 people (at that game),” said winger Ray Whitney(notes), a 19-season NHL veteran who signed with the Coyotes in the offseason. “I don’t know what could be the cure or the fix for it. Winning? They won last year, and this year they had 6,700 at a game the other night. It’s just the way it is, I think.”

The Coyotes were one of last season’s great stories. They had been taken over by the league, with former owner Jerry Moyes filing for bankruptcy protection in May 2009. As underdogs, orphans, wards of the state, whatever cute label you wanted to give them, they scraped together 107 points – a dozen more than they ever had before in Phoenix – and made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Dave Tippett won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

“Obviously the hockey operations department there has done a fantastic job,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “They’ve put a competitive product on the ice.”

Their reward? A sellout crowd of 17,125 came out for their home opener, but that was against the Red Wings, always a top draw in Phoenix thanks at least in part to a sizeable number of Detroit transplants in the area. Then it was 6,706 against the Los Angeles Kings and 8,189 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Winning didn’t change the fact that Jobing.com Arena, as gorgeous as it is, sits in the western suburb of Glendale. The Westgate area has grown rapidly around the arena, but it is still on the other side of town from all the money in the eastern suburb of Scottsdale.

“The arena’s a beautiful arena, but it’s kind of out off the beaten path a little bit for the people who do go to the games,” Whitney said. “To make that drive 41 times a year … I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I’m assuming that’s one of the reasons why attendance at times can be down.”

Winning didn’t change the fact that a lot of hockey fans aren’t even in Arizona in October, anyway. “Our economy relies a lot upon snowbirds, as we call them out there, people moving in for the winter,” said Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris(notes). “Maybe they’re not there yet.”

Attendance was sparse last October, too. The Coyotes drew as few as 6,899 for a game against the St. Louis Blues a year ago. But when the snowbirds came, they didn’t come to Coyotes games in flocks. The Coyotes drew as few as 9,142 for a game against the Predators in January. They drew as few as 10,385 as late as March for another game against the Blues, before selling out their last four regular-season games.

“It’s frustrating,” Whitney said. “Especially with the season they had last year, you’d like to see that increase. But what can you do? There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Captain Shane Doan(notes), the only player left on the Coyotes roster who moved from Winnipeg, described the ownership and attendance problems as routine. “It’s just like coming to the rink,” Doan said. “It’s not something that you want to deal with, but it’s part of playing hockey right now in Arizona. When it’s over and done with, we’ll be very excited.”

That helpless, stuck-in-limbo feeling seems to have sapped the players’ energy. They won last year because Bryzgalov was great and the skaters worked hard in front of him. Bryzgalov has been great again this year, but the rest of the team’s effort has been inconsistent at best.

Tippett did something unusual last week. He held a team meeting in Detroit – not in response to turmoil in the media, but in response to a lack of it. No newspaper reporters from Phoenix were following the Coyotes, who had just given a pitiful performance in a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators.

“Our situation is very unique,” Tippett said. “Some situations, there’s a lot of outside pressure, media pressure. Our situation isn’t like that a lot of times. So we have to make sure players are held accountable whether it’s in the dressing room, through stats, through video. There’s all kinds of ways to make sure that we’re doing the right things.”

The Coyotes beat the Red Wings the next night, 4-2. But then they came home and lost their next game to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-0. Attendance: 8,171.

They are 3-4-3. They have played three games without Doan (suspension) and six without center Martin Hanzal(notes) (injury). Their four highest-paid forwards – Doan, Whitney, Radim Vrbata(notes) and Wojtek Wolski(notes) – have accounted for one goal in their past 32 games combined.

Who is going to score Wednesday night against the Nashville Predators? How many fans are going to show up? Will the Hulsizer deal go through? Can a new owner make the difference? Will fans really commit to the Coyotes once they are certain the franchise will stay in Phoenix?

“We’re working as hard as we can to transition that ownership to secure the future of the franchise,” Daly said. “At this point, I think we’re progressing in a very positive direction in that regard.”

Bettman is betting on it.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Nov 3, 2010