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Op-Ed: Gary Bettman needs to accept hockey will never work in Arizona

Sometimes in life, despite a lot of effort, and time committed to something, we reach the point in realizing the work is simply not worth stress. Through almost 20 years of multiple ownership teams, and an on-ice product that has seen little success, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman still insists the people of Arizona are hockey fanatics. It is his stubbornness that has dragged a long dead corpse to the operating table, erroneously believing it will see life again.

In 1996, the beloved Winnipeg Jets, a team thanks to an old arena, a poor Canadian dollar, and a team lacking a lot of talent, moved to Arizona, ripping the heart out of a city that loves their hockey. Phoenix was part of the NHL’s plan to expand the league into the southern United States. Since the original move, the franchise has had four different ownership groups (not including the N.H.L), and neither one of them have been able to draw the people of Arizona into committing their time and money into professional hockey.

In their first three years of existence the Coyotes averaged more than 15,000 people in attendance, but the new franchise lost its luster in Phoenix, with an average of more than 2,000 less people attending games by 2002. The number of people attending games has fluctuated throughout the franchise’s existence. Just two years after the Coyotes reached the Western Conference Finals, the team ranked third from the bottom in attendance for the 2014-15 season. By comparison, when the Tampa Bay Lightning entered the league in 1992-93, only 10,000 people on average attended games. Since their Stanley Cup win in 2004, as much as 20,000 have gone to Lightning games, with the team ranking ninth in league attendance this year.

In 19 seasons, the Coyotes have made the playoffs just eight times; getting out of the first round once. Tampa Bay, who are playing in this year’s Cup Final, have had more playoff success than the Coyotes, but both teams exist in non-traditional hockey markets. There is no inclination the Tampa Bay Lightning will ever move, while Arizona faces questions nearly every year. While potential ownership groups in Quebec City, Las Vegas, and Seattle have plans in place to build arenas to draw an NHL franchise; questions and doubts keep on lingering in Arizona.

During the NHL’s State of the League press conference, Bettman dismissed any suggestion of relocation by stating, “There are myriad of options and we’re not prepared to engage in speculation as to what the optionality is. The focus, at least for the time being, remains on having the Coyotes in Arizona.” Bettman has tried too hard, been too stubborn, and has wasted too much time keeping the NHL in a market that hasn’t shown its team too much love. It has gotten so bad, many important services have been sacrificed to keep the Coyotes afloat.

The City pays the ownership group IceArizona $15 million a year to keep the franchise in Glendale, to go along with spending $50 million to operate the Gila River Arena. The money Glendale has doled out for the Coyotes has caused the City to cut funding for sanitation, and other projects, which included taking money from the general fund that operated a $66.4 million surplus in 2006. In 2012, that plummeted to a $26.7 million deficit.

The situation with the Coyotes is not just an issue for the league. The political implications of funding the survival of a sports franchise when the city is swimming in debt can cost elections, and further anger the public. The team continues to lose money and acts as a noose around the neck of the city. The taxpayers of Glendale paid for the construction of the Coyotes arena, as well as spring training facilities, while also taking on the burden of hosting a Super Bowl. Of all the debt the city holds, 40 percent of it is locked into sports facilities.

With the city of Glendale trying to get out of the arena lease deal, the team will find it real hard to attract free agents. The team has solid prospects like Anthony Duclair and Max Domi, but finding players in free agency will not be easy. When you combine a franchise with little winning history, and uncertainty as to where the team will end up; few players will find Arizona as the right place to play hockey.

Gary Bettman hasn’t worked as hard to keep other franchises in their cities like he has for the Coyotes. The league never took ownership of the old Winnipeg Jets, or Quebec Nordiques in order to find a way to keep the NHL in those cities, and those two places have a stronger hockey market than the dessert. Glendale is the home of the Arizona Cardinals; legitimate Super Bowl contender, and is one of America’s hotbeds for baseball, to go along with college sports, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. The Coyotes have simply not drawn enough interest in Phoenix, or Glendale; making it very difficult to argue the Coyotes can work.

Once again, the future of the franchise has been put in doubt. The viability of the market was questioned when the NHL took over ownership in bankruptcy court from former owner Jerry Moyes, whom after years of losing money, tried to sell the team to Jim Balsillie. No ownership group has lasted because rich people don’t like losing millions of dollars to say they own a sports franchise. The city where the Coyotes originated from, has 3,000 less seats than the Gila River Arena, but averages 2,000 more fans a night. There is no question hockey is not working in Arizona.

The vice mayor of Glendale told TSN the government is willing to renegotiate the lease agreement, but Coyotes ownership is not willing to return to the bargaining table. Since the vote to cut the lease, ownership has been granted a restraining order from the City which is allowing the team to stay in Glendale, at least temporarily, but if ownership sues, and wins, the City will lose more millions at a time when Glendale is struggling to pay their bills.

A move out of Glendale is not imminent, so this drama can go on for the next couple of seasons, but the writing is on the wall. While other cities are starving for professional hockey, one is swimming in debt to help maintain a losing team very few care about. Bettman needs to let it go and get it through his thick skull; the NHL doesn’t work in Arizona.

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