Two storylines this offseason loom of greatest interest to me: in what manner will general manager George McPhee reshape his playoff-failing roster, and will there be an initial domino to fall in franchise relocation space. The answers to that first storyline are weeks, at least, away. However, the past week had brought significant developments related to the latter plot.
The latest on the dire straits in the Desert arrived from CBC yesterday:
“The NHL schedule makers have created an itinerary for the 2010-11 season that includes a team based out of Winnipeg.”
“Last week I was informed that not only has Winnipeg been included in the 2010-11 NHL schedule, but we are to be in the NW division while Colorado moves into the Pacific division. This would make our rivals, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Minnesota. Believe me, it is surreal actually typing this, not as fantasy but as a reality.”
Last night, the Glendale City Council voted to authorize the NHL’s Sopranos-like demand for $25 million to cover operating expenses (aka desert-congenital losses), but that action amounts to little more than a stay of execution. Be sure to watch the commissioner’s car salesman-like performance on Hockey Night in Canada last night in the link.
Franchise relocation, division realignment, all being organized in the heat of the NHL playoffs? Oh I’m interested in this all right.
There are so many comments to make about the suddenly exploding ‘Plan B’ for the Phoenix Coyotes. And we should start by reminding ourselves of all the insistent hot air emanating from the mouths of the league’s very top leadership, Bettman and Daly, in recent months about the league’s commitment to the Phoenix market.
- Back at the Capitals’ first-ever fan convention just last September, Commissioner Bettman told media, “There’s no litmus test, at this point, on whether or not this team has a long-term future. We believe it does.” Well, there’s such a test now: either the town fathers in Glendale agree to provide tens of millions of dollars in subsidies for the NHL while the league searches for yet another viable ownership group (Glendale is already $15 million in red ink), or it’s pack it up the ‘Yotes and head for Manitoba.
- And here’s Bettman’s deputy, Mr. Daly, from just this past March: “In response to the many inquiries we have received in light of the story in the Phoenix Business Journal this morning, we would like to make clear that at this point in time the National Hockey League has no “deal” in place to move the Coyotes’ franchise to Winnipeg — or to any other city for that matter . . . “
- Last July, Daly told the Arizona Republic, “If we want communities to continue investing in our franchises, we need to work arm in arm to protect their investments.” Working “arm in arm” isn’t quite the way the seven members of the Glendale city council view the NHL right about now.
The NHL today owns the Phoenix Coyotes, having acquired the club in bankruptcy court last fall, and after the club enjoyed a remarkable turnaround season the league still lost tens of millions of dollars operating it ($20-25 million by all accounts), and it’s not doing that again next season, that much is clear. In addition, a would-be buyer of the club, Toronto-an David Thomson, has a personal net worth of $1.9 billion. That’s called a good replacement owner.
This again from the CBC:
“There have been reports that if an owner can’t be found to keep the team in Arizona, the NHL will instead move quickly to finalize a sale to Toronto-based billionaire David Thomson and Mark Chipman, chairman of Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
“Thomson and Chipman are partners in True North, which owns the 15,000-seat MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.”
Oh but there’s more. A Ken Campbell column in the Hockey News this week bears this bit of news: upwards of a third of the NHL’s member clubs could be up for sale real soon, and among them may be the likes of markets in greater New York (Devils, Islanders) and LA (the Kings).
Now consider: of the overall appeal of numerous relocation markets, particularly in Canada, where might you rank Winnipeg? And yet Winnipeg, oh so ironically 15 years later, is, sooner or later, the NHL’s saving grace for a financially doomed Sunbelt franchise.
The Phoenix Coyotes may or may not play hockey in the desert in 2010-11, but most assuredly they won’t long after that. And having a full carton of eggs on his face for moving a Canadian club to the Sunbelt, watching it lose money every season of its existence there, only to see it returned to the very same location in the Great White North, how exactly does Gary Bettman approach the other 29 member owners with the message, ‘Trust me, I know what’s best for league business, long term, I really do’?
Now then, as it relates to falling dominos: do you really imagine that 6-10 (or more) clubs so seriously in the red today — among them even multiple Cup-winning franchises such as the Isles and Devils — will look dismissively or passively on a bankruptcy-to-riches move like the Coyotes’ to Canada? And having failed so spectacularly in saving a franchise in Phoenix, how devoted do you imagine Bettman-Daly to be should it come to saving franchises in, say, Sunrise and Atlanta? Gracious, even Tampa today is on the seriously troubled list. Lastly, if the league is willing to realign a prestigious franchise such as Colorado, is it particularly far-fetched to imagine that under the right circumstances (like, the status quo) it just might move one or three Southeast clubs?
The Winnipeg Free Press on Tuesday made a point about the Phoenix market that could just as well apply to Miami or Atlanta : “Metropolitan Phoenix is less than engrossed with the saga. The NHL ranks sixth or seventh among the most popular sporting leagues in the region, after the NBA, NFL, major-league baseball, college football and college basketball . . . The latest story in the Arizona Republic about the Coyotes’ possible relocation takes up five paragraphs in a round-up of briefs on Page B2.”
There’s something of a schadenfreude charm to this tale, too, most parochial to frontier Canada. The big pompous commish a decade and a half ago strutted his know-it-all marketing moves culled in the NBA, promising money-losing franchises in Canada greener pastures in the American Sunbelt. American TV, he pledged, would fairly flock to the game he’d make hip. Didn’t quite work out that way. We did get two lockouts on his watch, however.
The moment is perhaps more powerfully instructive than any other in the inexplicably lengthy tenure of Gary Bettman. Remember, vast arena emptiness and eight-figure annual losses for franchises in Bettman’s Sunbelt laboratories long predate the macro American economic downturn. If this colossal failure in Phoenix, badly injuring hockey fans in both the departing and receiving cities, doesn’t qualify as a firing act, what exactly does Gary Bettman have to screw up to earn a pink slip?