17 March 2009

Coyote Trails

Yet another dismal season for the Phoenix Coyotes.

For awhile, the scrappy 2008-2009 squad hung on to the middle of the NHL standings ladder, but soon, reality set in and their fortunes plunged. Now the only remaining incentive for the string of remaining scheduled games is to avoid last place in the Western Conference. And it will be another season without postseason participation.

The Coyotes, since being transplanted from Winnipeg in 1996, have yet to win an NHL playoff series. True, early on, they were competitive and posted winning records. But now it’s over a decade of failure. Not just based on performance, but the lackluster campaign mounted to win the allegiance of Arizona sports fans. Today, rumors swirl about the team’s future prospects, as the team’s financial woes continue to mount, and talk of once again, another ownership change. One that may perhaps mean a migration to another city for the old WHA Winnipeg Jets. There, playing in that league that merged with the NHL in 1979 (and can you guess which of the 4 teams that were admitted to the NHL still plays in its original city?), the Jets captured three league championships (Avco Cup) and lost in the finals on two other occasions. Maybe the Coyotes will sprint back to Manitoba.

Since their move to Phoenix, everything about how the Coyotes have been managed has been a soulless, corporate exercise. From the very beginning, I was elated about a NHL franchise in Phoenix. At the end of the 1995-1996 season, the final Winnipeg year, promos flooded the local sports television fare, mostly clips of the sensational Teemu Selanne scoring goals. But one of the first moves the new team made was to trade Selanne away for two lesser skaters. Selanne scored 76 goals in his rookie season and now, 16 years later, is still playing in the NHL, and headed for the Hall of Fame. The two players the Coyotes received never amounted to more than bit players, and ceased to skate on for an NHL team top line years ago. Crushed, I refrained from making a season ticket purchase. Even the fan contest to name the team was tainted — reportedly, management chose “Coyotes” as the result — but many believed it was a fixed affair. That the chosen name was to pay homage to the Phoenix 40, and none of the other name offerings had a chance.

But as stated, the Coyotes put together competitive teams in the early years, and treated the fans to some spectacular opening playoff series play. In their first season, Paul Kariya broke the hearts of Coyote fans, sealing a game 7 victory with a breakaway goal. A few seasons later, fans experienced a crushing overtime game 7 loss to St. Louis Blues. In 5 out their first 6 years, Phoenix qualified for postseason play. And the last time, in 2001-2002, was particularly thrilling as it was a younger club, after departures by Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. A squad that posted the best regular season mark in Phoenix’s short lived NHL history to date. That season, and the next, I was a season ticket holder. And those were the last two seasons in America West Arena (located in downtown Phoenix, in the NBA Suns home, though named USA Airways Center now). Despite to moving just down the road from me in Glendale, Arizona, I could not afford the jump in price for a pair of season tickets. Plus, a friend who I shared the cost with, no longer wished to purchase a season ticket plan either (and he lived even closer to the new arena).

In many ways, the Arena is a fabulous hockey venue. No obstructed seats, like America West Arena (which eliminated at least 3,000 seats on one end above the rink), and a brand spanking new facility. Still, to me, it was inferior to the old Veterans Memorial Coliseum where the IHL Roadrunners used to play. More skyboxes, neighboring commercial office buildings and other corporate tidings do not comprise a great hockey arena. Even though I live within a 10 minute drive, going to the games on my side of town still involve a longer commute as I have to wade through an outdoor mall to get to my seat.

I’ve rambled on long enough and haven’t even addressed the main cause of the Coyotes myopic misdirection in Arizona. Everything Phoenix Coyote management has done (and no matter which ownership set we are discussing, Richard Burke, Gretzky, Moyes, etc.…) seems to be lifted from a lifeless corporate playbook. Focused on short term sales, instead of planting seeds to grow hockey fandom in Arizona. It’s where they have failed ridiculously.

The desert may not seem a haven for hockey enthusiasts. Sheets of ice are completely unnatural in a land of plentiful sun. But that 300+ yearly allotment of sunny days means a virtually never ending calendar of hockey on wheels — roller blades. Within a short drive of my home, I can tally dozens of roller rinks, some outside and a few inside, where you can skate and shoot on net until your legs turn to jelly. And although it’s not as cheap to get all the required gear as say basketball, it’s a lot more affordable than ice hockey or golf. After being exposed to hockey skating, many a future fan immediately acquires an appreciation of the game’s beauty, and a lifetime fan is thus created.

What have the Coyotes done to plant those seeds to grow a future fan base? Not much at all. Other than token appearances where team stars sign a few autographs for kids and pose for some publicity photo shots. I still can’t fathom how I can write this — that this should be as obvious as can be, but such thinking eludes the Phoenix Coyote stewardship.

A few miles away from the Coyotes home rink in Glendale, an inline hockey rink is chained up, and rarely used. I played in a league there a few years back. It was only opened up for league play (which only occurred during the winter months) and if you could get hold of the individual that oversaw the league to come and unlock it. That fellow informed me that no way could they open the rink up as it would be destroyed by the public. Maybe so, but 20 miles further up the road, in that exurban hell of Anthem, an outdoor rink is available to the park visiting public at all hours (though you have to pay to get the lights turned on at night I believe). Yes, there they have somebody riding around and patrolling the premises. It would seem that the Coyotes could gain so much mindshare by contributing or investing in those facilities. To bring the joy of hockey to kids in Glendale, Arizona.

I remember the Penguins early years in Pittsburgh. Like the Coyotes, the franchise struggled on the ice. But one thing they did do was ignite interest in hockey amongst the youth. Empty basketball courts in the winter soon became flooded by kids with hockey sticks, goalie nets, and little red balls. Later, in the 1980s, the presence of Mario Lemieux inspired a generation of youngsters to take up the fabulous sport of hockey. The Coyotes might bereft of a blockbuster superstar on the roster, but their coach is the all time scoring leader and arguably the greatest (along with Bobby Orr and Lemieux and maybe Gordie Howe) hockey player of all time — Wayne Gretzky!

As a subscriber to the satellite NHL Center Ice package, I get to see hockey games in HD. But they black me out from the Coyote games — and it’s most irksome because there are a number of games for which there is no local broadcast. And if it indeed is airing on the local cable sports channel, it’s not a HD broadcast, or worse, it’s a fuzzy, compressed, substandard video feed that looks dreadful. Way to go in keeping me an excited Coyotes fan!

Plant seeds, then in a decade or two, a loyal, rabid fan base that lives and bleeds for the home team will ensure the team’s financial health. Focus on the short term and any success will be fleeting, subject to the vagaries of the team’s won-loss performance. Germinate the metropolitan area’s hockey ecosystem and expose more to the wondrous sport of hockey.

In attendance at a recent game (tickets given to me), I wondered how inept Coyote management must be, if somebody like me, a bona fide hockey nut, located a few freeway exits away, in possession of gainful employment at well above poverty wages, cannot be persuaded to plop down some coin for tickets. That is big time failure.

I will be sad when the Coyotes exit Phoenix, as without a radical departure from the course they’ve chartered, I see no rationale for hope. My non-hockey-loving friends and coworkers (I’ve converted my family, or at least some arrive at an understanding of the underlying passion) tease me about hockey being a minor, irrelevant pasttime. I always respond that hockey is the “one true sport” — as it embodies the elements of all the other sports: the skill in baseball, the precision of golf, the speed of racing, the quickness in basketball, power of football, toughness of boxing, the “anything can happen” in soccer, etc.…