Sunday, October 18, 2009

Big Performances, Small Crowds

Under the best of circumstances, October hockey in Phoenix is a tough sell. The weather is still warmer here than it is in the dead of summer in most places. There's plenty of sports competition from the NFL Cardinals, two state universities and the coming NBA season. Not to mention the State Fair. And there's little hockey coverage or culture to generate incremental interest in the game.

So poor attendance at the Coyotes two home games this week was not surprising. But the crowds of 6,900 and 9,100 this week were lousy even by Arizona standards.

It's already brought out the vultures in the hockey press. Bloggers and journalists in established hockey markets and across Canada are already writing the obituary for the franchise. "A ruined market"..."dead team walking"...and "only a matter of time until the Coyotes move" are some of the headlines I've read in the last few days.

Well, not so fast.

Unless someone lives in Arizona, they cannot understand the damage that was done to the franchise this summer. There was no promotion of the team. There was no corporate sales season. Most of the ticket reps have quit and many professionals have left the organization. Their positions for the most part have gone unfilled.

Since the ownership of the team has not been settled, there has been little in the way of advertising or marketing. And what there has been is off target and not creating a ripple in the market. Publicity for the team has been OK but not extraordinary.

There are still a lot of loose ends here. Some things need to happen in short order for attendance to improve.

Winning can cover a lot of problems and the Coyotes continue to perform well on the ice. Last night they beat down the defending Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins 4-1 in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. That gives the team wins over San Jose, Pittsburgh and Boston in the first two weeks of the season. Those were three of the four best teams in the NHL last year. Phoenix gets a crack at the 4th, Detroit, on Thursday night. By any measure, a great start to the season and one that has the Coyotes on top of the Pacific Division.

And the Coyotes need to continue winning. It is non negotiable if the franchise's fortunes are going to turn. The team lacks star power. In many respects they are reminiscent of the 1996 Florida Panthers, a team of journeymen who played far better than the individual parts. Coach for a month Dave Tippett and his staff have done an outstanding job putting in a tight checking system and maximizing the assets on hand. Tippett and Don Maloney are the early leaders in any discussion for coach and manager of the year in the NHL.

The next thing that needs to happen is that the ownership situation needs to be settled. There is a perceived uncertainty in the community that is not going to go away until new owners are firmly in place.

The Ice Edge group continues to make their presence known. People inside and outside of the organization are whispering that what once seemed to be long shot bid to buy the team may be closer to reality than anticipated. Much closer than has been reported in the local press. Ice Edge already has a lease agreement in place with the City of Glendale.

There's also chatter that the Jerry Reinsdorf group may resurface once the NHL gains control of the situation. They have been keeping a low profile but that has been their modus operandi since first bidding for the team. They have access to the money and the connections necessary to purchase and manage the team.

The NHL is due back in Judge Tom's court next week for a hearing on many of the loose ends still hanging from the bankruptcy. It's expected the league will shortly file an amended bid that meets the court's criteria for purchasing the team. Then it's up to the NHL to flip the team as quickly as possible to new owners. Unless the league has gotten cold feet about the Phoenix market (and wants to take on the City of Glendale in court) a quick sale is anticipated. That will allow new owners to take over and make a strong statement that the team is staying in Arizona. This is a necessary component in rebuilding the fan base. Until the door is closed on potential relocation, questions will remain and business will suffer.

The optimist in me says that both will happen. The coaching staff is using the talent on hand as well as any team in the league. The defense is mobile and active. Adrian Aucoin is living up to his billing as a minutes-eater and is a solid confident player. Keith Yandle is showing big improvement over his rookie season. And Sami Lepisto, acquired from Washington for a 5th round draft choice, has been a pleasant surprise. Combined with tight checking, it's made life relatively easy for Ilya Bryzgalov. And Ilya has been up to the challenge, backstopping the Coyotes to the best goals allowed in the league.

It all seems so simple. Ice a winning team, install new owners and management and a renewed optimism, all in place in time for the Christmas selling season. And enough progress on and off the ice to make the turnstile count a footnote rather than the story. It can happen.

And yet, just a few weeks ago it seemed so far away.

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