Sitting in the stands watching practice a little earlier, Don Maloney, the Phoenix GM, rattles off a list of the veteran players he’s been able to sign, due, at least in part, to Arizona’s charms: Ray Whitney, Adrian Aucoin Lee Stempniak, Derek Morris. “We were able to get some good deals because this is a really good place to play for the families,” he says. Even having 13 Canadians on the roster won’t guarantee much enthusiasm for a Manitoba winter. Maloney, who won the NHL’s first-ever GM of the Year award last season for shaping a team that earned 107 points despite the off-ice turmoil, says a move to Winnipeg would make his job a lot harder. “That’s a known fact. That’s what Edmonton faces. Nobody hides that.” And like the NHL schedule makers, he’s already working on dual plans for next season. One involves resigning some of the team’s unrestricted free agents—eight contracts, including star netminder Ilya Bryzgalov’s, expire at the end of June—and adding some vets. The other calls for a youth-heavy rebuild in a new location.
Mike Nealy’s task has been to try to keep the franchise viable while its future is being hashed out. Promoted to the job of Coyotes’ chief operating officer last summer, the Minnesota native has had some success, increasing revenues by reducing discounts and giveaways. (On average the team hands out about 1,000 “comps” a game, down 40 per cent from last season.) But the team, 28th in the league in overall attendance, is still on track to lose $40 million this season. And it’s not just the uncertainty that has bled away their season-ticket base, but lasting challenges like Jobing.com’s Glendale location—on the far western edge of Phoenix, a traffic-choked hour away from the snowbird fans in the east valley. Nealy remains optimistic that hockey can work in the desert, but says it will take three to five more winning years to get the bandwagon rolling. “There are hockey fans here. But right now we see them show up and cheer for their former teams,” he says. “Part of our job is to get fans to adopt the Coyotes.”
Some don’t need to be convinced. On a concrete patio outside Gate 6, prior to a Thursday night tilt against Columbus, a couple of dozen hard-core Phoenix fans gather to smoke, drink, and lament the way Winnipeggers and the Canadian media seem to be conspiring to steal their franchise. Heather McWhorter, who blogs about the team and helped organize the Save the Coyotes Coalition, considers herself exhibit number one in the case for hockey in Arizona. Born and raised in south Georgia, she had no connection to the game—”We didn’t even know there was a team in Atlanta”—but fell deeply in love the first time she watched the ‘Yotes play live. “I couldn’t believe that no one had told me how awesome this sport is,” she says. Now McWhorter is a season ticket holder—$1,300 for upper bowl ducats to 41 home games.
Dawn Leeper, her friend and seatmate, grew up in Tucson as a fan of the local minor pro teams (three failed franchises in three years in late 1970s). It’s her first year as a season ticket holder, but Leeper has already developed a fan’s sense of ownership. “Every time I see a Manitoba licence plate, I want to yell out my car window: ‘Leave my team alone!’ ” Given the 120-km round trip from her Scottsdale home to the rink, it happens more often than you might think.
The Patio Six Posse have developed a healthy distaste for those pining for the return of the Jets. McWhorter has to ban commenters from her blog on a daily basis. The flame postings arrive in bunches, sometimes hundreds a day if she’s been quoted in a story about the team.
Canadian reporters are held in even lower esteem by both Phoenix fans and, most especially, the city of Glendale. “It has been very disconcerting in terms of the manner that the story has been presented and interviews presented,” says Frisoni. “The overwhelming majority of the Canadian press has taken a position that in the States only editorial writers would do.”
In the battle to save the Coyotes, there’s only one good guy, it seems. Gary Bettman’s patient approach wins kudos from the city, team management, Hulsizer’s camp, and even the Goldwater Institute, which credits the league for its respectful efforts to keep the dialogue going. Even the fans in Phoenix like the commish. “This might be the only place in the NHL where he could award the cup and not get booed,” says McWhorter. Proof that Arizona is a very different hockey market indeed.