Inside the NHL: Coyotes weather the storm, Nazem Kadri banks on himself and top trade deadline buyers
LAS VEGAS The Arizona Coyotes have survived a bankruptcy, a court challenge for relocation and multiple changes in ownership.
As they now navigate an eviction that could force them to spend multiple seasons playing out of a 5,000-seat arena, there’s no reason to believe the NHL’s commitment to keeping a franchise in the desert has wavered.
Gary Bettman made that abundantly clear during his media availability at all-star weekend, essentially laying out the only terms that would see the Coyotes ponder a move. The franchise’s long-term survival in the Phoenix area is tied to an ambitious arena and entertainment district proposal in Tempe, and as long as that remains in the works the NHL commissioner is comfortable with short-term stopgaps.
“It’s not going to be two weeks, but it’s not going to be two years,” Bettman said. “If there’s no prospect of a new building, then we’re going to have to focus with ownership on what makes sense. But as long as there is a realistic possibility in the nearer term of a new arena in the right place, we think that there’s a tremendous opportunity for that vibrant market.”
Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the United States. It produced one of the NHL’s most electric players in Auston Matthews, who was compelled to become the first member of his family to pick up a hockey stick after attending a Coyotes game when he was young. There are now multiple NHL-calibre prospects following in his footsteps.
As much as anxious hockey fans in Quebec or Houston might quibble with the NHL’s loyalty to Arizona, there is plenty of logic behind it.
The most pressing issue for the Coyotes is finding somewhere to play next season, because their lease with the city of Glendale at Gila River Arena is expiring. They’ve negotiated a deal that would see them pay $19.7 million (U.S.) to build NHL-calibre dressing room and workout facilities adjacent to the new arena at Arizona State University.
That three-year deal, which includes the opportunity to extend beyond 2025 on a year-by-year basis, must be approved by the university’s board of regents. It’s due to be discussed when they meet Thursday and Friday.
The Coyotes’ ability to generate revenue will be significantly impacted by playing out of such a small venue, although Bettman said the league had modelling which suggested they could make more than they have been at the sparsely attended Gila River Arena. The organization is hoping that an intimate venue might become a draw in itself, especially since it’s located a few miles from where its new arena could be built.
If anything, Bettman sounded more of an alarm about the state of the league’s Canadian teams, because of the hit they’re taking by being forced to play games with reduced crowds due to pandemic health restrictions.
The most adversely affected by those is the Ottawa Senators, who have 11 home games scheduled at Canadian Tire Centre with capacity limited to 500 fans. They were one of the teams that considered moving games to the U.S.
Remember that the Senators have twice refinanced debt over the last decade, most recently completing a $125-million financing in June 2018. They’ve since seen revenue drastically reduced during a pandemic that’s run almost two years.
Asked if he had concerns about the Senators, Bettman answered the question in broader terms.
“All of the clubs that can’t have full capacity are losing lots of money,” he said. “I don’t have concerns about a club going out of business. You know, it’s not unlike what we’ve been through the last couple of years. Completing the ’19-20 season and then doing the ’20-21 season — it cost a lot of money, OK? On average we lost $50 million a club, maybe. Some more, some less.
“Adding this for some clubs on top of it isn’t great.”
When Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently met with government officials from Quebec, they told them there were no franchises available for relocation. That doesn’t appear to have changed, even with some of the lingering uncertainty.
You wouldn’t expect Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo to spend money on the ASU arena upgrades if he had thoughts of moving the team elsewhere. And he’s still got top NHL officials in his corner.
“I mean, hockey has done very well at all levels in Arizona, particularly since the Coyotes were there,” said Bettman. “Just ask Auston Matthews.”