Lighting The Lamp: Desert Dogs

Coyotes signed Keith Tkachuk jersey circa 1998 - Rick Ackerman

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

[ed. note - this isn't written by Hildymac, so before any Yotes fans fuss at me on Twitter again, I am not a bitter Thrashers fan (not bitter!) nor did I write this. So there.]

Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman

The men who ruled the National Hockey League in 1979 thought they had finally settled a major problem when they accepted four rival World Hockey Association teams into the league. Their problems were just beginning, though. Three of the four franchises that were absorbed into the NHL were abject failures financially and ultimately had to be relocated. Only the Edmonton Oilers succeeded and stayed in its original venue, while the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995 as the Avalanche, the New England/Hartford Whalers to Carolina in 1997 as the Hurricanes and the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix in 1996 as the Coyotes.

Local investors fronted by Jerry Colangelo, owner of the NBA Phoenix Suns, were highly pleased with early success on the ice due to the play of center Jeremy Roenick, obtained in a trade with Chicago, wingers Keith Tkachuk, Shane Doan and Rick Tocchet and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. The Coyotes made the playoffs five of the next six years. finishing the regular season over .500 for five of those six years. Unfortunately, the Phoenix facility, the America West Arena, was totally inadequate and unsuited for hockey, forcing many limited-view seats due to part of one end of the upper deck hanging over the boards and ice, obscuring a third of the rink and one goal from view. Seating capacity was limited to just over 16,000, making it the second smallest in the league at the time.

For the next six seasons, the Coyotes were barely competitive and failed to make the playoffs. Attendance dropped drastically and combined with an unfavorable lease with the city, the franchise suffered tremendous financial losses, as much as $40M a year. In 2001, the club was sold to Phoenix developer Steve Ellman, with Wayne Gretzky as a part-owner and head of hockey operations. A new rink was finally built in 2003, the Glendale (now Jobing.com) Arena. The Coyotes also changed the logo and uniform, from a green and black Pueblo-inspired Kachina style (pictured) to a more streamlined running coyote in Sedona red. Instability plagued the organization, though, and once again the team was sold in 2005, this time to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes, part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Brett Hull joined the team and Gretzky took over as head coach.

However, Hull only played five games, recording one assist, and the club plummeted to last place in the Pacific Division, out of the playoffs once again. In December 2008, it was revealed that the Coyotes' massive financial losses caused owner Moyes to secretly give operational control of his team to the NHL, which was paying the team's bills. And then in May 2009, Moyes put the franchise into official bankruptcy, opening public hearings in Phoenix bankruptcy court. After four long years, even Gretzky gave up and resigned as coach.

During the next several years, as many as five different investment groups proposed deals that were never approved or outright rejected, and the NHL continued to run the franchise despite continuing financial losses. Finally, on August 5, 2013, the NHL announced that the franchise had been sold for $225M to IceArizonaAcquisitionCo., LLC., a ten-man group headed by George Gosbee, CEO of Atlacorp Capital, an investment bank partnered with ATB Financial, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Government of Alberta. Gosbee is also Vice-Chair of Alberta Investment Management Co., a $70B institutional investment fund. The Glendale City Council approved a 15 year lease agreement, including a yearly $15M payment for operating expenses by the city to Renaissance Sports & Entertainment, the managing partner for IceArizona. A codicil adds that RSE can move the team after five years, or if operating losses exceed $50M during that time. Stay tuned for the announcement later next year that losses have hit the $50M mark and the franchise will be relocated to Seattle.

And that's basically because attendance in Phoenix continues to be the worst in the NHL. Through 9 games this season, the Coyotes have drawn an average of 12,398, 72.4% of capacity. Last season, the Coyotes finished 29th (only the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum were worse) with an average of 13,924, 81% capacity. Yikes! How can such a good team (check out the current standings) draw so poorly? Part of the problem is that the rink is located in Glendale around 20 miles (and at least 45 minutes by highway) northwest of the downtown area, literally out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the real money in the Phoenix metropolitan area is to the east in Scottsdale, where most of the players live. The practice rink is also located in Scottsdale, making it convenient and easy, quite unlike the Jobing.com Arena. There are other facilities such as restaurants, hotels and movie theatres clustered around the rink-complex, but getting there is quite a problem, especially in rush-hour traffic.

Yes, the Coyotes are quite good this season, led by goaltender Mike Smith and a smooth-skating defense adept at the transition game. And they can score goals, too, currently ranked eighth in the league with well over three goals per game. An efficient power play is ranked tenth. Nevertheless, the Blues have owned the Coyotes over the last five seasons, winning 13 of 19 contests, outscoring them 58 to 40. In seven games over the last two seasons, St. Louis has won six, outscoring Phoenix 23 to 11. In only one of those seven games did both teams combined score more than five goals. If history repeats itself, expect a similar outcome tonight.

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