Collateral Damage: The frustrations, hopes of Phoenix fans

Since 1997, Heather Schroeder has sat in an arena every NHL season, passionately cheering for the Phoenix Coyotes to succeed. This summer, she's been in a different seat: Inside a U.S Bankruptcy Court for every hearing involving the Coyotes' future, still passionately -- though slightly less vocally -- rooting for her team.

"Gary Bettman knows who I am. He recognizes me and greets me by name. Which I have to tell you is unsettling as a hockey fan," she said recalling the surreal nature of the last few months.

Schroeder (not pictured) is the president of the Phoenix Coyotes Booster Club, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the team and hockey in Arizona, and one that works with the franchise on various charitable efforts. She's a die-hard Phoenix Coyotes fan. (Go ahead, read it again. They actually can be found in nature.)

Some have scoffed at the number of club members (160 as of Sept. 8), much like the 500 fans who showed up for a "Save The Coyotes" rally earlier this summer were dismissed. The totals, she claims, don't do justice to the amount of Coyotes fans that are devastated by the team's potential departure.

"There's this small group of people that are supportive and positive, and we're sure we're going to keep our team. And then there's the huge mass of people that just don't know what to think. Their only source of information is the media, because the Coyotes can't give out any information. When your only source is the media, it's rather hopeless," she said.

The current court battle between the NHL and Research In Motion's Jim Balsillie will culminate in two days of drama on Thursday and Friday, with Judge Redfield T. Baum ruling on which bid will win the ownership auction. Pending what should be a flurry of appeals no matter which side takes the ruling, the Coyotes will either remain in Phoenix (perhaps tentatively) or begin the process of relocating to Hamilton.

Heather Schroeder's is just one voice among Coyotes fans, but her words on the outcome likely echo throughout their ranks: "I'm not losing my hockey team. I'm not. I've put too much time and effort and energy and passion into it."

But has too much damage already been done in the Phoenix hockey market?

There are different types of puckheads around North America. Schroeder and other Coyotes fans represent what can only be called "The Disrespected." You know them: Fans who have a dossier of evidence filed away in their minds against any argument about the quality of their city, franchise or fellow fans. Bring up attendance, and a Coyotes fan is ready with comparisons to when the team was more successful and factors like good golf weather undermining the gate. That sort of thing.

Another hallmark of these fans is boundless optimism about their market, and Schroeder's got it -- even in frustrating times.

Schroeder said the Coyotes have held open houses in the past that were ticket sales opportunities and provided a chance for the boosters to recruit; the number of these events decreased from around six to just two in 2009.

There's been little to no marketing of the team locally. Schroeder said the sales staff of the team has been cut back due to lagging ticket sales, which aren't helped by the current economy.

But it's the Chapter 11 filing and the uncertainty over the team's future that's brought Coyotes fandom to a halt, she said.

"For us, it's like the year after the lockout. It's going to be another 'let's make the most of it season,' but we don't expect too much," she said.

"Season-ticket holders are afraid to commit their money because it could be a lame duck season. They're afraid to commit their money because they think they can't get it back, even though [NHL deputy director] Bill Daly has written a letter to everybody here to say that everybody who invests in the team will get their money back if it moves."

Schroeder was a Coyotes fan heavily invested in the team when owner Jerry Moyes's bankruptcy, and subsequent sale attempt to Balsillie, were announced. Stunned doesn't begin to cut it.

"It was so out of the blue to the fans. We knew there were financial problems; they always said they were losing money. But it was never 'we're losing so much money that we might have to leave,'" she said. "When I first heard the news, I was devastated. I was without words. I didn't know what to do, didn't have anybody to call. I was totally freaked out."

Her anxiety was amplified by what she saw as unbalanced reporting both in the hockey and local media about the situation, citing what she felt was pro-Moyes, anti-NHL coverage -- if there was coverage at all. "One of the reasons we have problems with the fan base here is because of our local media. We're very, very much a fifth or sixth sport here in the Valley when it comes to the sportscasters."

So Schroeder and some other Coyotes fans decided to take ownership of the story as best they could, using blogs and Facebook and Twitter to keep fans connected and informed about progress in the case and, frequently, blow-by-blow action in the courtroom. (Ed. Note: A clarification here. The links here point to Web sites run by Heather McWhorter, another Coyotes fan. They're here as examples of Coyotes fans using social media to get the message out and are not affiliated with Heather Schroeder. Just an FYI.)

Through admittedly maroon-colored glasses, Schroeder thinks the NHL has made its case for the team, and that Balsillie's will fail to win the team. But while many in Canada have made this issue into a comparison between "worthy" and "less worthy than Southern Ontario" markets, she said keeping the Coyotes doesn't mean keeping a seventh NHL team out of Canada.

"I don't think anybody disagrees that Canada can support more teams. I would love to see Winnipeg get their team back. I would love to see Quebec get their team back," she said.

"But I wouldn't wish anybody losing their team [for it]. I wouldn't wish this summer on anyone. This is horrible."

So she tries to remain optimistic and hopeful in dire times. For example, the NHL's bid for the Coyotes clearly leaves open the possibility that the team could leave anyway if concessions aren't made by Glendale. Not only does Schroeder believe the city will cave, but that the NHL is committed to making the market work.

"I do. It's not one guy making this decision. It's the Board of Governors. They have to believe in Phoenix for a reason, because they've already put this much money into it. If the judge rules for Balsillie, they'll ask for an appeal. If they ask for a stay, they have to put up a huge bond to keep it here. They're willing to do that. They're willing fund the entire season. There has to be a reason for that, and it can't be so they can turn it around and move it somewhere else."

Yet ever the optimist, Schroeder's a realist. She knows that the well's been poisoned for this season, and that earning back the trust and interest from fans will take a perfect storm of good hockey and committed ownership. But she also knows that no matter what happens this week in court, she'll be in the arena again this season.

"There is no way that I can't be there, even if it's a lame duck season. We will have a booster club," she said. "It's because of the guys. Hockey players are such great people. I can't walk out on Shane Doan(notes)."

But if Balsillie wins the day and the team moves to Hamilton, Schroeder and Coyotes fans like her will be faced with the same harsh reality that Nordiques fans and Jets fans (ironically) and Whalers fans and other abandoned cities have faced: Life without the local hockey heroes.

"Once they're gone, I don't know what I'll do. I've never been a fan of another hockey team," she said.

"I've only been a Phoenix Coyotes fan."