A Shoe Is Dropping in Winnipeg, and It’s Being Heard in Washington

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.”
It’s a “contingency plan,” CBC hastens to note, but it’s yet another powerful sign that all the huffing and puffing from Uncle Gary about the league being irrevocably committed to making hockey work in the desert is air hotter than Phoenix’s in August. When the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday asked the league for comment on word of a contingency schedule that included a reconstituted Jets, Bill Daly offered “No comment.” Hmm. Also yesterday afternoon I read this at Jetsowner.com:

“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:

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?

This entry was posted in Gary Bettman, Media, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Phoenix Coyotes, Southeast Division. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Shoe Is Dropping in Winnipeg, and It’s Being Heard in Washington

  1. Mike says:

    Good article. Bettman is an idiot..But it will be interesting to see the domino effects of this. How much longer can Atlanta & Florida really afford to have a team? I think Isles will be safe..the Devils just don’t make sense to me–They are ALWAYS competitive and they can only sell out when they play the Rags or Flyers because half the building is other teams fans (kinda like us in the old days). 5 years from now we will have a team in Winnipeg, Las Vegas, & Hamilton.

    Couldn’t this apply to McPhee as well… Over a decade of failure..what else does he have to earn a pinkslip?

  2. Christopher says:

    The end is near! The end is near! Chicken little! Doomsday for the Coyotes! They will SURELY be moved! Then, the Capitals will SURELY be realigned into a more prestigous division! It is all be inevitable! All of the dominoes will fall EXACTLY how Capitals fans have always wanted — we will wake up one day and it will be 1985 again, except with Alex Ovechkin!! I have foreseen the future and it is good!

  3. Goon says:

    Awesome article, I saw the Bettman interview on CBC last night and Gary Bettman was unimpressive, arrogant and condescending and should be running for office with the way he answers questions. It’s time to face facts that Gary’s expansion is failing miserably in non traditional markets like Phoenix and Florida.

  4. Claudia says:

    Good article. I have a question – who would give Bettman the pink slip? There’s a board of governors, right? are they the ones who would fire Bettman?

  5. Dave says:

    I’m a Caps fan living in Phoenix. Your article is pretty ignorant of the Phoenix situation, which comes as no surprise: the rest of the country seems happy to just say “You can’t have hockey in the desert!” and switch off their brains after that.

    The Truth: The Coyotes’ last owner (Moyes) deliberately sabotaged the team as part of his collusion with Jim Balsillie. Balsillie’s offer would have given Moyes an extra $100 million “equity” kickback that he won’t get from any other buyer. To make the team less attractive to other buyers, Moyes deliberately mismanaged the team to inflate its losses, which includes a long list of outrageous stuff like mass-mailing season ticket holders telling them not to renew, because they would lose their deposit. I would think it would be huge news, to have an owner assault his own franchise like this; but outside Phoenix, all that gets reported is, “The desert! Hockey, in the desert!”

    The truth is, Phoenix is a huge market, with over 4 million people, and the city is exploding in size. And as for supporting hockey, a quarter of those people – over a million- moved to Phoenix in the last 10 years from all over the Midwest and Northeast. Phoenix is loaded with hockey fans who follow teams elsewhere in the country. In fact, this whole gigantic city has minimal allegiance to ANY of its sports teams, because everyone is from somewhere else. As I see it, this is a giant, still-untapped hockey market. All it will take is for the team to be stable and make the playoffs for the fans to respond.

    But it’s so much easier to write about how ice melts in the desert, isn’t it!

  6. Chad says:

    If its so popular and flourishing how do you explain 15 straight years with losing money? How come game 7 against the 2 time defending Western Conference champions can’t sell out? Just because a lot of people live in a city doesnt mean that it will popular and people will go. There are probably more fans in Winnipeg then all of Arizona. Its all about demographics not just population numbers.

    I will give you props on the reasons for the financial disaster over the past few years. But, you can’t tell me 15 years of straight financial losses + goi to bankruptcy court is good for the franchise.

  7. Dave says:

    Dear Chad:

    Game 7 was a sellout. Since you felt the need to share your thoughts without spending 20 seconds to fact check yourself, I guess you’ve told everyone the value of your opinion.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s