(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Craig Morgan of Arizona Sports on the Arizona Coyotes! Enjoy!)
By Craig Morgan
The Coyotes’ history could be traced through a series of laments.
What if Teemu Selanne hadn’t been traded? What if Jerry Colangelo had designed America West Arena for hockey as well as basketball? What if Wayne Gretzky had been a capable coach and executive? What if Daniel Briere, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Turris had stuck around? What if the Coyotes had won the NHL Draft Lottery, or even finished second, in 2015 or 2016, landing Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine? What if the franchise had enjoyed long-term, stable ownership?
It’s fair to wonder about all those scenarios, and Coyotes fans have spent many a long night at Gila River Arena doing just that. Given the current predicament of the franchise, however, no question is more relevant than this one:
What if the Scottsdale City Council had signed off on a voter-approved deal in 1999 to build the Coyotes a new arena at the site of the old Los Arcos Mall?
What if the Coyotes had never moved to Glendale?
Here’s a little background before exploring that possibility.
The Coyotes played their first seven seasons at America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena) in downtown Phoenix. While attendance in those seasons was pretty good in the 16,000-seat hockey configuration, revenue was not because the lease wasn’t favorable in the Phoenix Suns’ building and the Coyotes did not have access to all the associated revenue streams.
In 1999, a Maricopa County Superior Court allowed Scottsdale citizens to vote on a development deal for a new hockey arena at McDowell and Scottsdale roads. This was a break from precedent, but the size of that deal played a role in the court’s decision.
Scottsdale voters approved the deal, but the arena was never built due to endless haggling between then-owner Steve Ellman and the Scottsdale City Council, which didn’t like elements of the arrangement. In 2001, the Glendale City Council approved a package that included a $180 million commitment toward a new arena and in 2003, the Coyotes moved west, stunning Scottsdale, which thought it was still negotiating with Ellman.
Since that move and depending on the source, the Coyotes have lost anywhere between $20 million and $40 million annually.
Attendance figures have languished near the bottom of the league.
Part of that was due to a poor product, ownership fluctuation from Ellman to Jerry Moyes to the league, and the aforementioned poor management of Gretzky and his host of cronies who came to be known locally as FOG (friend of Gretzky). The Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes have missed the playoffs in 10 of their 13 seasons in Glendale, and advanced past the first round just once (2012).
Another, undeniable fact led NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to take a firm stance on the team’s future in the West Valley.
“The Arizona Coyotes must have a new arena location to succeed,” Bettman wrote in a letter to Arizona lawmakers in March. “The Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale.”
There is clearly an element of politicking in the league’s stance, as it tries to force lawmakers’ hands. The Glendale City Council’s decision to void a 15-year arena lease and management agreement less than two years after signing it played a major role in the two sides’ irreconcilable differences, but here is the reality of the team’s current situation in Glendale. The West Valley hasn’t grown according to those initial, lofty projections. The population and wealth bases of the city still reside on the east side of town, and east-side buyers make up 77 percent of premium season tickets sold at Gila River Arena (on the glass, BMW Lounge, suites and loge boxes), and 78 percent of premium-seat revenue for the Coyotes.
A Scottsdale arena would not have solved all of the Coyotes’ problems. Mismanagement, unstable ownership and poor teams have played significant roles in the franchise’s struggles, but if the Coyotes were in Scottsdale, they would probably draw at least 1,500 to 2,000 more fans per night, their suite sales would likely increase, their corporate partnerships would likely increase and gun-shy fans’ fears of relocation would probably not exist because the team had a suitable home in the heart of its affluent season ticket base.
With a crop of talented young players on the rise, new owner Andrew Barroway labeled a new arena “the only thing holding us back. We just need an arena in the right location.”
While downtown is still the Coyotes’ preferred destination, Scottsdale would have been far better than Glendale. As it stands, an arena solution is nowhere in site and relocation talk still pollutes any discussion of this franchise. While previous reports of a move to Winnipeg, Quebec, Portland, Seattle and Las Vegas all proved erroneous, a new site is haunting Coyotes fans’ dreams with an attractive promise:
Houston, we have a solution.
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