Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Road Ahead Part 2

There's relief in the air in Coyoteland. The NHL and Ice Edge Holdings have signed a letter of intent for the purchase of the troubled franchise. It's far from a done deal, but it's a great sign that the Coyotes will be staying in Arizona, hopefully for many years to come.

For several months the league seemed to be cool on the Ice Edge proposal. We know that Ice Edge kicked the tires on the Florida Panthers prior to developing an interest in the Coyotes. The Saskatoon option (and why isn't it the Winnipeg option?) was a head scratcher when it first was reported and some Canadian media dismissed the group as less than stout financially. The NHL seemed far more interested in promoting the Jerry Reinsdorf solution for the Coyotes. When that option evaporated, the persistent Ice Edge group was able to cut a deal with the NHL.

We're not exactly sure why the NHL was slow to embrace Ice Edge but it may have to do with financing plans that are unorthodox or unusual. And there's sure to be some concern about the Saskatoon deal. We'll find out more as the vetting process goes on.

That process will also tell us about how deep the Ice Edge pockets are. While IE is saying all the right things about not even thinking about losses, it's going to take a while to turn this battleship around. The concern if the league likely centers around how much money the group is prepared to lose to sustain losses through what will be a tough transition.

There are some facts emerging about Ice Edge Holdings that will be great comfort to Arizona hockey fans.

For starters, the letter of intent has a 30 day expiration. That puts pressure on the group, the City of Glendale and the NHL to get a deal done quickly. The NHL desperately wants/needs to get the Coyotes off the books as soon as possible. The City needs to put this ugly story to bed and the sooner a definitive sale agreement is signed, the league can conduct their due diligence and move towards approving the sale.

Ice Edge is apparently putting up 90% of the purchase price of the team in cash. While the team will most certainly have a line of credit and likely will be looking at significant short term losses, they will be spared the crushing debt service that handcuffed the Moyes ownership.

And perhaps most importantly, these guys have apparently have money. Lots of it. It was a question early on but apparently it is in the process of being answered. In fact an official from another NHL team told me this week they are better equipped financially than many other teams in the league. After the early concern about the wherewithal of the group, this comes as a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Ice Edge takes over an organization that a Phoenix sports executive from another team told me was bloated. By ways of comparison, the healthier Suns have a much leaner team and arena organization than the Coyotes. That will likely change under new management.

And that cost savings, along with the elimination of debt service and whatever concessions Glendale brings to the table will put this franchise on the road to financial respectability. No it won't solve all the financial problems but it's a big start.

The whole Saskatoon thing remains a mystery. Apparently the City is willing to let a few games go as part of the Ice Edge plan to ease cash concerns. Whether the league and the players association will agree is another matter. There's some skepticism on both sides that could derail the plan. Our guess? Perhaps a scaled back plan (say 3 games vs. the Western Canada teams) would be tolerable at least as a test. And hopefully in a couple of years, the Arizona franchise will be healthy enough to make this a non-factor.

There's much good to be found here. Introducing a new ownership team will give doubting local fans confidence to begin supporting the team. And they will come back to find a team that is in the thick of playoff contention and vastly improved over previous seasons. There is nothing that will turn this area on to hockey quicker than playoff hockey.

I was in the stands a few years ago when the Anaheim Ducks won their first ever playoff series. It was an extraordinary experience. Fans were crying, because not only had the team made the playoffs come back to Orange County but because the team found a way to win a series. The excitement translated into season ticket sales -- 4,000 new tickets in one season.

It could happen here. It would be an extraordinary conclusion to a bizarre year. And it would be enough to leave more than a few people crying in the stands.

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