The clock is ticking for the Phoenix Coyotes. Down 1-0 to the St. Louis Blues with less than three minutes left in the first period, the team is fiddling away a two-man advantage. The wingers are having trouble controlling the puck, and the one shot Keith Yandle manages from the point misses the net by a country mile. When a fumbled pass results in a short-handed rush for the Blues, the boos rain down in Jobing.com Arena. It’s surprisingly loud given the size of the crowd—10,977 tickets sold or given away, but at least a thousand fewer actual bums in the seats. On a Tuesday night in late March, matched up against a team bound for the golf course instead of the playoffs, hockey is a tough sell in Phoenix. Hand it to the fans who do show up, though—they’re as apt at expressing their displeasure as any in the game.
The chant that rises out of the upper bowl during the second period isn’t quite as lusty, but perhaps even more telling. “Goldwater sucks! Goldwater sucks!” NHL catcalls aren’t usually directed at libertarian think tanks. Then again, nothing about the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes is business as usual.
Since the spring of 2009, when former owner Jerry Moyes put the club into bankruptcy, there have been two failed efforts to sell the struggling team, and a messy legal battle with Jim Balsillie over the BlackBerry billionaire’s attempts to move it to Hamilton. Now a deal with a Chicago businessman to keep the Coyotes in place hangs in the balance, chilled by the philosophical objections—and potential legal action—of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative watchdog group. The NHL, which has been running the team and paying its bills for two full seasons, has almost exhausted its patience. “Time is running out. We’re coming to an end,” commissioner Gary Bettman warned last month. A rink and an ownership group led by David Thomson, the richest man in Canada, await in Winnipeg. Jets fans, who saw their team move to Arizona 15 years ago, can hardly contain their glee.
At issue is an agreement between the city of Glendale, Ariz., owners of Jobing.com Arena, and Matthew Hulsizer, the prospective Coyotes buyer, which would see the municipality pay him $100 million (all figures in US$) up front for on-site parking rights—raised through a bond issue—and a further $97 million to manage the rink over the next 5½ years. In turn, Hulsizer would use those funds to purchase the money-losing club for $210 million from the NHL, guaranteeing not to move it for at least 30 years. Over the life of the deal, which runs to 2041, the city estimates it will net more than $287 million from sources like arena usage fees, game-related sales tax and parking charges. But opponents dispute those predictions, noting that the total cost of the bonds alone is likely to range between $250 million and $340 million, once interest is factored in.
The Goldwater Institute claims the agreement violates the state constitution. Under Arizona’s “gift clause,” governments are prohibited from providing grants, subsidies, or financing to private individuals or businesses if the cost clearly outweighs the direct public benefit. The think tank’s assertions have made it difficult for the municipality to find a market for the bonds, and are hotly disputed by Glendale, which says it has five legal opinions to the contrary. “We have taken 2½ years to structure a deal that we have made sure is in accordance with all the rules,” says Julie Frisoni, the city’s spokesperson. Hundreds of jobs, and what one study suggests are $500 million worth of indirect economic benefits, will be lost if the team moves back to Manitoba, she says. “The taxpayers Goldwater claims to represent are the same taxpayers who are going to be hurt.”
Four months into the fracas in Phoenix, tempers are fraying. There has been plentiful hate mail, and even some death threats. Dark conspiracy theories about who’s really backing Goldwater abound. The players are having trouble focusing. The team’s supporters despair. And in some quarters, Canadian media are about as welcome as the plague. Who knew that hockey could arouse such passion in the desert?