The NHL-owned franchise isn't drawing and has been through a bankruptcy. As rumors fly and deadlines approach, Quebec City and Seattle watch and wait.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Phoenix Coyotes depart the ice with the kind of result that leaves everyone with mixed emotions.
On a Monday night as they battle for a playoff spot, the Coyotes rally from a two-goal deficit in the third period to force overtime and get a vital point in the standings. In overtime, they don’t score and lose in a shootout.
A similar unsettled feeling colors everything about the Coyotes, the team most often mentioned as a candidate to relocate to Seattle if a new arena is built in the Sodo District and an NHL team lured to town.
Truth be told, Phoenix has been rumored the past few years to be relocating just about anywhere there’s a city that might want to host a team — Kansas City, Quebec City, Hamilton, Ontario, and, yes, Seattle.
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In fact, the news over the weekend that Quebec City is going ahead with plans to build an arena in time for the 2015-16 season only fueled the rumor mill about the future of the Coyotes.
Those around the team, though, have pretty much grown numb to talk of relocation. Such rumors have followed the Coyotes since 2009, when they were bought by the NHL when the team — under previous owner Jerry Moyes — declared bankruptcy. The NHL has been searching ever since to find an owner, with lots of fits and starts but no success.
Team captain Shane Doan, who has been with the team since it relocated from Winnipeg in 1996, said questions about the team’s future are undoubtedly taking a toll in the locker room.
“The ownership situation is something that obviously isn’t enjoyable, by any means,” Doan said in a recent interview. “It definitely causes anxiety because people have got families, and it’s one of those things that we would love for it to be settled.”
In one of the few certainties about the Coyotes at the moment, most agree that some sort of finality is coming soon.
The city of Glendale, a suburb roughly nine miles northwest of Phoenix with a population of about 226,000, has supported the Coyotes since 2009, giving the team $25 million each of the past two seasons to keep it afloat.
The Coyotes are the primary tenant of Jobing.com Arena. And the arena is the centerpiece of Westgate City Center, an 8 million square-foot retail center that has struggled financially and would have an even more uncertain future without the Coyotes’ guaranteed 40-plus home games per year.
The Glendale City Council vote to approve the money last year was contentious, and some city officials have said it’s unlikely such a measure would pass again.
Thus, the urgency to find a buyer, and the general feeling that the team won’t exist in Phoenix for another year in its current situation.
NHL officials have maintained they’d like to keep the team in Phoenix, and there have been rumblings of two ownership groups willing to buy the team (the NHL wants at least $170 million) and keep it here. Nothing has materialized. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently the league might be forced to set a deadline for the situation to get settled in Phoenix, or allow for the team to be relocated.
“At some point we have to (set a deadline), and I hope we don’t get to that point,” Bettman said at the league’s general manager meetings.
The uncertainty has appeared to hurt attendance.
The team was a hit in its early days in the area, making the playoffs five of its first six seasons playing at America West Arena in downtown Phoenix.
However, the arena, built primarily for the Phoenix Suns, was regarded as not big enough for a hockey team. So the team moved to Glendale, a relocation headed in part by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, then a co-owner of the Coyotes and for a time the coach.
“At the beginning, when we got here, the first seven, eight years, we had a decent team and we’d sell out 26, 27 games a year,” Doan said. “But the arena wasn’t that great of an arena, and it needed to be fixed, so they ended up moving it out here and subsequently the team started to struggle. It’s like moving a team from Seattle to Tacoma — it’s a whole different fan base.”
The Phoenix area is home to many transplants, which the NHL initially thought would help the team succeed. Instead, the Coyotes often draw well when fans of big-name teams come to town. But developing hard-core fans of their own has proved more difficult.
The team didn’t make the playoffs its first five years in Glendale, sandwiched around a season lost to the NHL lockout in 2004-05, and attendance has suffered since.
The Coyotes average 12,170, almost 1,000 fewer than any NHL team, in an arena that seats 17,125 for hockey.
The Coyotes drew 11,518 for a game against Nashville, and for most of the game, Jobing.com Arena sounded like a library. Officials’ calls on the ice could be heard from the upper reaches.
“It wasn’t great, but it’s not the worst crowd you could possibly have,” Doan said.
In fact, Doan sympathizes with Phoenix fans. He said he knows they are reluctant to commit to a team that has been rumored to be on its way out for almost four years.
“You try to sell season tickets to someone that doesn’t know (if the team will be here),” he said. “A lot of season tickets are sold to families trying to get a tradition built up, and it’s hard to convince a family to spend money to start a tradition when they aren’t sure if you are going to be around. There is no way that anybody can tell me that that doesn’t have a drastic effect on attendance.”
The team recently announced it is selling season tickets for next season. But those also come fully refundable if the team moves, and many fans seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. And while there have been rumors about a buyer stepping forward to sell the team, nothing is concrete.
Despite everything, the Coyotes have ranked as something of a surprise, contending for a third straight playoff berth with a team most figured would be among the worst in the league when the season began.
If only they knew where home truly was.
“Without a doubt, it’s frustrating,” Doan said. “It’s disappointing. You want to think, ‘Well there’s a group that wants you.’ “
Maybe someday. Maybe Seattle.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta