For years, we have heard about how deep the pockets of the latest owner in Arizona are. As one after another rolled through the corner office at Coyotes HQ, each was said to have more resources than the last.
But THIS one? Alex Meruelo?
He’s a true billionaire, they said. And we have no reason to doubt that he is.
But, somehow, the Arizona Coyotes‘ exit from Glendale was marked by accusations — as reported by The Athletic — of unpaid bills and late arriving, partial payments. And when the campaign for the new rink was voted down, it was revealed by Craig Morgan of PHNX Sports that opponents of the referendum spent more money than Coyotes ownership, who were late and light when it came to the funding required to educate the voters on the “Yes” of the slate.
This is the metaphor for this Arizona franchise.
It should work. It really should.
But, since moving from Winnipeg in 1996, somehow it hasn’t.
Today, a franchise that has survived more death knells than the Canadian Football League is back on the funeral pyre. The Tempe arena deal that seemed a slam dunk was somehow rejected by voters who would not even accept future tax breaks for a project that was going to reclaim land that has been a landfill for nearly 70 years — and pay the costs of that rehabilitation.
There are fallback plans, possible new arena sites scattered across Mesa, Tempe and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and the seven months budgeted for dealing with the landfill buys the Coyotes time to fine-tune a new plan. But with every week that passes, the hits keep coming.
Internally, Jakob Chychrun’s two-year trade demand was as toxic as a pest control truck parked permanently out front of your favourite restaurant. Why wouldn’t a player of this pedigree want to be part of this program, we wondered, as Chychrun’s name topped the trade boards from deadline to draft, and back to deadline again?
Then, this summer, another key player — leading scorer Clayton Keller — had his representation meet with the Coyotes, seeking information on what the future is going to look like in Arizona. And Logan Cooley, the ‘Yotes third-overall draft pick last summer, decided to return to college.
Cooley told Morgan the arena vote did help sway his decision.
Ah, Mullett Arena.
The new rink on the Arizona State University campus is a beautiful, state-of-the-art college arena. It is not, however, an NHL arena in any definition of the term, with a capacity of less than 5,000 and television sight lines that are akin to broadcasts of the Allan Cup from places like Dundas, Ont., or Lacombe, Alta.
The National Hockey League board of governors has succumbed to commissioner Gary Bettman’s indulgence of this pet project, allowing the use of Mullett Arena through 2025. But that concession was made with the promise that the Tempe arena would get the go-ahead.
Their impatience is said to be growing.
Meanwhile, in a relationship that revolves around the production of hockey-related revenue, neither the NHL owners nor the NHL Players’ Association are happy about a member club playing in a 4,600-seat facility. That’s the financial side.
The optics aspect of the so-called “top hockey league in the world” playing its games in a tiny college arena is, well, a little bit embarrassing.
What if Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong struck gold and built the Florida Panthers in Arizona? What if ESPN and Sportsnet were televising a Western Conference Final in an arena that just cannot fulfill the media mandate of such a series?
Or worse, where would they move the Coyotes to play their playoff games?
Bettman’s legacy project has tested the patience of his governors, whose teams collectively keep this desert dream alive. Their patience is not infinite, and if real, legitimate ownership in a western U.S. city such as Houston or Salt Lake City arises, they will instruct Bettman to listen.
Forget Quebec City — you can’t replace the 11th largest media market in the United States with a city that would not help national ad sales or U.S. TV ratings, though we question the positive effect that the Phoenix area has on the latter. The NHL needs to stay west with this one, and that’s why a sale to Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia could be pursued — even if his downtown arena has 4,500 obscured-view seats when fitted for a hockey game.
I know. It’s a lot.
The Coyotes always have been a handful, from the moment they arrived at old America West Arena, to their flawed foray out to Glendale, to this latest, Animal House arena they call home.
So, maybe it’s time.
Not to take the NHL away from Arizona forever. Maybe just long enough for someone to create a hockey environment that is commensurate with the best league in the world.
Perhaps we put Arizona on the expansion list, the way we did with Atlanta. Look how the Calgary Flames turned out, and Atlanta had a second crack at things years later.
The drama, it can’t go on this way.
Bettman’s soap opera, it’s no “Days Of Our Lives.” It’s reaching the end.