The group negotiated a $15-million, 15-year contract to keep the team in Glendale, and was able to use that guarantee to borrow $100-million from the bank.
“It made it, from my perspective, a valid and fairly valuable deal. It’s a win for the city, a win for us, and it gave us the ability and time frame to make it successful in Phoenix,” he said. “And if it isn’t successful in Phoenix, we’re not involved. Because the way that deal is structured we can’t be the group of owners moving it … so we’re bought in, 100 per cent, to being in Phoenix.”
The idea is to model the Coyotes on the Detroit Red Wings – a famously well-run franchise that the city takes pride in. Specifically, the group, with general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett, aims to emulate the Wings’ system of long-term player development, rather than making frequent changes to their lineup.
In Phoenix, there’s the added opportunities associated with being in a locale that is a popular vacation spot for Canadians, who can help to create more buzz. Meanwhile, the league has much riding on keeping the sport alive in large U.S. centres, even if they aren’t winter cities, he says.
The next step is to seek ways to build on the hockey and Canadian connections. The idea of a Tim Hortons franchise has been tossed around, though that has yet to be pursued.
Mr. Saxberg had a bit of experience in the business of sport, buying advertising space for Crescent Point at CFL stadiums in Winnipeg, Calgary, and the home of his favourite Canadian football team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The company’s and Mr. Saxberg’s connection with that province runs deep. It is where he began his career in the oil business and Crescent Point is now one of the largest private-sector investors there.
For hockey in the southwestern desert, it’s still early under the new ownership, but the club – to be renamed the Arizona Coyotes next season – is creating some excitement. Attendance at a few games this season has hit franchise highs. Meanwhile, the team has had the highest growth in ticket sales in the NHL, he says, though it started from the lowest point.
“I think the sport’s been very well received. We’ve locked up a lot of the long-term contracts – TV, food and beverage – we’re looking now for the naming rights for the arena. So we’re shoring up a lot of the financial aspects of the franchise,” Mr. Saxberg says. “It’s a lot lower risk of endeavour now than it was six months ago.”
Of course, in sports, winning wins fans, and the Coyotes are in fourth place in the Pacific Division so far this season, with 27 wins, as of press time.
Mr. Saxberg’s engineering background, and experience with heating, ventilation and air conditioning, has already come in handy. The 17,000-seat Jobing.com Arena in Glendale has always been frigid, especially for fans coming in out of the Arizona heat. That’s not good for beverage sales, at least cold beverages.
During a game, he walked down to the chiller room, the crucial mechanical guts of any arena, to talk to the operators in hopes of coming up with ways to warm up the building for the fans while keeping the ice hard for the players. He made a few technical suggestions that stuck.
“We changed their mindset and thought process around it and we added about 10 degrees to the temperature of the arena. Now it’s comfortable and warm in there. It’s like Calgary or any other arena. As an owner, that’s a skill set I brought to the table,” he says.
“Now people notice it and over time, that’ll change the mindset of fans going to the arena. Before, they sold blankets and tuques because it was so cold in there. Now you can play golf, then go there in your shorts and watch a game.”
Born: Brandon, Man.
Education: University of Manitoba (B.Sc mechanical engineering).
Married: Rachel Saxberg
Children: Graeme, 15; Kellen 12.
Crescent Point sponsorships: STARS Air Ambulance, Inn from the Cold, amateur athletics (luge).
Hobbies: Hockey, snowshoeing.