Greg Wyshynski, ESPN18 May 2023, at 9:45 a.m. ET
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OfArizona Coyoteswon't stop. They're the NHL equivalent of an '80s horror movie monster who regains consciousness after being electrocuted for the 10th time and trudges on despite his supposed mortality as everyone runs away screaming.
Consider, if you will, their story:
Coyotes have changed hands several times.
They went bankrupt and were owned by the NHL for a period as a result.
They discovered the one thing Wayne Gretzky wasn't good at: coaching.
They almost moved to Hamilton, Ontario and Seattle, among others.
They have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons, punctuated only by a brief appearance in24 team pandemic postseason of 2020.
They were kicked out of their arena in Glendale, but moved to a 5,000-seat college hockey arena on the Arizona State campus for possibly four seasons.
It's called Mullett Arena. You can't make this up.
On Tuesday, the "monster" received its final death blow: Tempe voters emphatically rejected a ballot initiative for a $2.1 billion entertainment district that would have included a new Coyotes arena. It was a vote that destroyed the fans' hopes and killed the team's management.
"There is no plan B at the moment," a team source said.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement: "The NHL is terribly disappointed with the results of the public referendums on the Coyotes arena project in Tempe. We will review with the Coyotes what the options may be moving forward."
Notice what Bettman didn't say there: something that seemed like his emphatic past support for the franchise staying in Arizona. Like two years ago when the Coyotes' financial disputes with Glendale were publicly discussed and he said, "The Coyotes aren't going anywhere."
Maybe it's because without an arena or a plan B, they have to go somewhere else.
The Coyotes thought they won this vote. Internally, there was an estimate of a 10-point lead in the opinion polls. The team had booked president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez to make media rounds Wednesday in anticipation of a victory lap. Instead, he went radio silent when the initiative was defeated.
The team felt it had made its case, from the private funding to the project's societal benefits. It received the support of former and current politicians, all of whom noted that this useless landfill would be put to good use.
I don't know if it was hubris or hubris, but the Coyotes clearly miscalculated some aspect of the atmosphere.
The opposition was better funded and controlled coverage early on. Much of what was said about the offer was misinformation about taxes, state funding and owner Alex Meruelos' messy breakup with Glendale. The Coyotes used less, caught up messaging and couldn't reframe the argument to enough voters. They weren't in the mood either. One factor I heard: some problems in their relationship with local unions who would have worked on the construction of the entertainment center. As is often the case in municipal elections, they could have helped turn that mood around.
Why didn't the Coyotes fans show up to support the initiative?
I think they would have if it hadn't been for the city's initiative. If it was a ballot measure in Maricopa County, that brings the majority of Coyotes fans into places like Scottsdale. Asking why Tempe hockey fans didn't show up for the arena vote is paradoxical. The new arena was intended to create new fans. How can you expect those fans to vote in that arena before they are made themselves?
In the wake of the vote, there was immediate speculation about where the Coyotes might move. But as I first reported on Wednesday, the team willspend the 2023-24 season at Mullett Arena.
It makes sense. Yes, it is true that teams can move quite quickly. The Atlanta Thrashers' move was approved in mid-May 2011, and their sale to True North onWinnipeg-jetflywas announced on May 31. But outside of maybe Quebec, there is no plug-and-play destination for the Coyotes. The last thing the NHL wants to do is ruin access to a new market with a hasty move.
So if the Coyotes move, the process will be more precise, including finding the right new owner -- my understanding is that Meruelo will not own the team outside of Arizona.
And finding the right city. As you can see here, there are plenty of options:
When the arena vote failed, attention immediately turned to Houston as a potential new home.The Coyotes were previously linked to the city in 2021, when Forbes reported that they were "for sale again with the idea that the buyer would eventually move the team to a new arena in Houston". Bettman said at the timethis report was "completely false".
Houston is the fourth most populous city in the United States, and the Toyota Center is an NHL-ready building.Houston missilerowner Tilman Fertitta manages that building, and he said in 2017 that he would "put an NHL team here tomorrow" if he could. 2018,Boston Bruinsowner and chairman Jeremy Jacobs said in a radio interview, "Obviously the one area that's lacking is Houston, because it's a great city."
Bettman told The Associated Press in 2019 that "if there was ever a team, unless there is a new arena, Mr. Fertitta would control the entry point." Sportsnet has reported that the number the NHL had in mind for an NHL franchise takeover was not the number Fertitta had in mind. Which can be a problem.
ESPN's John Buccigross told ABC 13 in Houston, that heexpect the city to have a teamin the coming decade.
"It's probably over in Arizona unless someone big steps up. Houston is right at the top of the list," he said. "It would be a very creative, attractive place for the NHL. Plus, the league is trying to be more diverse and more like America. So that's another Houston secret: it gives you a different flavor."
Frankly, it would be a surprise if the NHL didn't tap into the fertile Houston market for an expansion fee instead of a move. But without a doubt, it is the best option on the board.
Salt Lake City
Like Fertitta in Houston, 45 years oldUtah JazzownerRyan Smitalso operates the Delta Center, the team's arena. He recently told a fan on TwitterPlans to bring an NHL team to Salt Lake City were 'in motion'and he met Bettman.
Last summer, Smith added private equity firm Arctos Sports Partners as a minority investor in Smith Entertainment Groupit declared its intention to bring another professional sports team to the city. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Arctos was the private equity investor allowed by the NHL under an amendment to the league's bylaws effective December 2021. Arctos Sports Partners closed investments inMinnesota WildIBlixem and Tampa Baythe next month.
Delta Center was built in 1991.It's not exactly an ideal hockey arena, but can accommodate around 14,000 fans for the sport. The real appeal for the NHL in Salt Lake City is what comes next. The city is bidding for the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympics, with speculation that a new arena could suit both bids.
This is definitely one to watch. A request:In honor of the classic indie film from the 90s, they should call the team SLC Puck.
Kansas City, Missouri
There is nothing the NHL loves more than a very famous person contributing positively to the league. You had Deadpool and Snoop Dogg owningSenators from Ottawa. Now you have no less of a celebrity thanPatrick Mahomestweet about, how"KC Coyotes sounds great!"and encourage the team to move to the T-Mobile Center. Kansas Mayor Quinton Lucasthe feeling doubled.
The Kansas City arena has been open since 2007. It is operated by NHL affiliate Anschutz Entertainment Group and can hold more than 17,000 hockey fans.
It has hosted NHL exhibition games. Teams have flirted with moving to KC, includingPittsburgh PenguinsandNew York Islanders- although in the end it was probably just for leverage.
The problem, as always, was finding local ownership willing to take over an NHL team. A move, rather than paying a sky-high extension fee, would be the best course of action. And heaven, would that rivalry with St. Louis not be something else?
Sac Town is worth mentioning here for two reasons. First, it's a top-20 television market nationally, in a state already populated by three NHL teams. Second, it has Vivek Ranadive. ThatSacramento Kingsowner is aggressively pursuing ownership of the Ottawa Senators. If that doesn't work out, can he turn to the Coyotes?
It would take some work at the Golden 1 Center, where the Kings play, to make it hockey friendly.
I'm not sure I could show my face in the ESPN campus cafe if I didn't at least talk to the whale in the room.
Hartford lost its NHL team in 1997 to Raleigh, which continues to honor the Whalers' legacy (and the revenue potential of an iconic logo) by wearing these jerseys for at least one home game each season. The Connecticut capital has made inquiries with Bettman and other teams over the years about the NHL's return to Hartford. In 2017, the mayor of Hartford and the governor of Connecticutsent a letterto the New York Islanders to move the team north.
There are several problems with Hartford as an NHL destination. There should be a new arena. While it's a market rich in hockey fans, it's also saturated with teams — three in the New York metro area and the behemoth that is the Boston Bruins, whose existence will always reduce Whalers 2.0 to second-tier status.
And as we'll see in our next nominee, the NHL isn't all about bolstering the fan base it already has when it comes to expansion and relocation.
One of the true joys of Gary Bettman's press conferences over the past 20 years has been hearing the divine accent of one of the French-Canadian reporters begin to ask the inevitable question of when the NHL will ever bring a team back to Quebec City.
Normally, his response would include something about the NHL not being in expansion mode ... until it was in it in 2016. Quebecor made an effort to revive the Quebec Nordiques at the Videotron Centre, which can hold more than 18,000 fans. The NHL refused and awarded Las Vegas only one expansion franchise. Quebec was also on the outside when Seattle got the Kraken.
Bettman was asked again about Quebec City in January. "I know there's constant speculation about that. We're not in an expansion mode. If we decide to participate or have an opportunity to expand, we'll let the people of Quebec City know. Those who might want a team to own,"he said, adds to itCanadians from Montrealowner Geoff Molson would not block another team in the Canadian province.
The problem for Quebec City — besides not naturally fitting into the NHL's current lineup, otherwise they play in the Central Division — is that the league is all about expanding the fan base. A return to Quebec would undoubtedly be financially beneficial based on the amount of interest. But it would appeal to fans who already eat hockey rather than reaching a new audience in a place like Houston. There's a reason the NHL chose Vegas and Seattle. Honestly, it's hard to argue that they didn't make the right calls.
Influential NHL agent Allan Walshdid the thingsin the wake of the Coyotes vote that "there's no better place to move a team than Ontario."
Another NHL team in Toronto has always made sense to me. I've even argued that it should be a Western Conference team – with both conferences regularly passing through the "Centre of the Hockey Universe".
"That would instantly rank among the top three revenue teams in the league," Walsh wrote. "We have a 50/50 salary cap, and the league has a moral obligation to the players to maximize hockey-related revenue. A 2nd team in Ontario would be a revenue-generating monster. If the NHL is willing to get rid of the cap, then keep or place the franchise where it will."
OK, that ended up being a luxury tax argument, but you get his point: Toronto could support another team. And now that the market is turning the Maple Leafs (again), there's likely a path open for an alternative. I'll reiterate my position: If a team enters the market as a competitor to the Original Six franchise, they should be called the Rakes or Blowers, aka the sworn enemies of the Leafs.
But the idea that the NHL would ever allow a relocation fee over an expansion fee from another Toronto owner is about as far-fetched as the Leafs win two playoff rounds.
One of the Hail Marys that keeps the Coyotes in Arizona is so newPhoenix soleowned and listedNikola Jokicantagonist Mat Ishbia would welcome the franchise to share the Footprint Center, aka America West Arena, or the place where the Coyotes originally played after moving from Winnipeg.
Yeah, about that: It's not built for hockey. There would be about 4,500 limited view seats behind one of the nets, providing the kind of limited view of the rink not seen since the half days.Islanders at Barclays Center.
The arena has just undergone a renovation that has cost more than 230 million dollars in total. It contained nothing that would have made it more hockey-friendly, despite the fact that there was an NHL team down the road whose arena situation was tenuous at best. They don't want to share sponsorship money or naming rights or anything else with an NHL tenant. Like most HGTV shows, the renovation tells the story.
Back to Glendale, Arizona
Not to mention Atlanta (third time's a charm!), Portland, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, all of which were mentioned as being on the NHL radar.
As we all argued about where to move the Coyotes, a hand shot up through the ground on the team's grave.
Fools never say deadpic.twitter.com/xtlRwv8rYQ— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski)18. maj 2023
Gutierrez sent a letter to the team's fans confirming that they would be playing with Mullett next season. But beyond that, he said, "We remain committed to Arizona and have already begun re-engaging with local officials and venues to solidify a new permanent home in the Valley."
So maybe the Coyotes will have once again stared down the abyss of the NHL draft and backed away from it. On to the next unused piece of land. On to the next city council and block of voters to convince.
Color me skeptical. This one felt different, like the end of something. As if they took their last, best shot and missed the net high and wide. I respect that defiant tone, which might sell a few more Kachina jerseys for next season. But I think in a way the Coyotes' run has finally gone the distance.
Don't get me wrong: I don't like that Arizona no longer has the NHL. Not with such a large media market. Not with the intense devotion of the fans who have followed the Coyotes through it all. Not with the burgeoning local hockey programs that could provide the nextAuston Matthews, currently pressing his face against the glass to seeClayton Kellerskate.
But maybe the NHL team in Arizona can't be the Coyotes anymore. Maybe the voters are telling us that the baggage the Coyotes brought with them from Glendale was too much to ignore. Maybe the market needs a reset and a clean slate.
As we said earlier, the franchise has been through a lot. Maybe too much. Maybe they should get rid of it too.
But most importantly, the end of the Coyotes is not the end of hockey in Arizona, nor should it be.
Like any great '80s horror film, there's always a sequel.