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Desert dogs or prairie dogs, Coyotes still a mess Add to ...

sbrunt@globeandmail.com

The road to making big-league hockey successful in Arizona apparently leads through Saskatchewan.

Who knew?

At this early stage, despite all of the blind alleys associated with the story, the inclination is to extend the benefit of the doubt to a new group planning to bid on the Phoenix Coyotes in a bankruptcy auction, with the stated intent of keeping the NHL franchise in its current home of Glendale.

There are good, hockey-loving Canadians in the potential ownership mix, with Ivy League backgrounds and sound business pedigrees. They have taken their time, studied the situation, and only now are prepared to jump in and challenge Jerry Reinsdorf and Jim Balsillie, the other suitors for the deceased dogs of the desert. But already, the red flags are everywhere.

One is that Ice Edge Holdings, as the group is known, is still beating the bushes for investors, which at this late stage is never a great sign. You'd think the NHL might have learned a few things by now about lying down with the undercapitalized - especially those considering buying a franchise that lost an astounding $67.1-million (U.S.) last season.

Another is its eagerness to commit to Wayne Gretzky, who may well have been the greatest hockey player in history, but didn't sell any tickets in Phoenix, certainly didn't show enough as a head coach to justify being paid eight times what anyone else in the league was making, and whose history as a minority partner in sports franchises isn't exactly marked with great success.

Forging a relationship with Gretzky - who isn't part of Reinsdorf's plans - seems more of a sop to angry Canadian hockey fans than to those in the Valley of the Sun, who didn't seem to fully appreciate the Great One when they could watch him in action behind the bench on any night of the season. It's as though Ice Edge is reaching out to the Make It Seven flock, throwing a little crumb their way, assuring them the national icon will at least be well looked after.

But that ain't the half of it.

The Ice Edge group is also pledging to play five regular-season games in Saskatoon, and even to move some playoff games there should the Coyotes ever manage to reach the postseason.

Somewhere, Wild Bill Hunter is smiling. It was his intent long ago to move the St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon before the NHL threw a wrench in his plans, and now the circle is nearly complete.

But even the suggestion raises some rather fundamental questions - in addition to the fact that it's awfully tough to convince even committed fans of a sport to embrace teams that they only possess on a temporary basis (see the NFL's Buffalo Bills in Toronto).

How much extra revenue could be derived from playing games in an 11,300-seat arena in a modest-sized Canadian market? (The population of Saskatoon is slightly more than 200,000 - albeit most of them like hockey - versus four million in the greater Phoenix area.) If it's enough to justify the expense, the inconvenience, if playing in a small rink in Saskatoon would be that much more lucrative than playing games in a big, state-of-the-art one in Glendale, then the Coyotes must indeed be an irredeemable basket case and perhaps would be better off moving to the prairies full time.

And why would anyone who believed in hockey in Arizona even suggest relocating playoff games?

The postseason is where NHL teams really cash in, jacking up ticket prices while at the same time are free of any salary obligations to the players. Presumably, if the Jobing.com Arena was ever to be filled, it would be for the Coyotes' first playoff appearances in eons. Wouldn't you want to exploit that possibility for everything it might be worth? Wouldn't you want to try and build fan loyalty by playing there?

The fact is, this doesn't sound like a hard-headed business plan for salvaging hockey in Phoenix - or even for setting the stage to move the team when it inevitably fails.

This sounds like something you might come up with over a few beers, hoping to land an NHL team on the cheap with the league's blessing, while also playing hero to Canadian hockey fans.

For the NHL's governors, it might help to counter Balsillie's highly successful propaganda campaign. It might make NHL commissioner Gary Bettman et al seem slightly less "anti-Canadian" if they bought into it.

What could be more symbolic of having true hockey hearts than playing a few games in a province which has long been the sport's Bethlehem?

But beyond that, there's nothing in it for the NHL, unless there is absolutely no alternative. And even then, it would at best buy a little time.

 

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