JAMES MIRTLE

Coyotes succeed with scant resources

The Globe and Mail

Phoenix Coyotes left wing Taylor Pyatt (14) celebrates his third period goal against the Chicago Blackhawks with his teammates Keith Yandle (L), Radim Vrbata (R) and Antoine Vermette (50) during Game 4 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey playoffs in Chicago, Illinois April 19, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young (Jim Young/Reuters)

It may be only the second round, but the Phoenix Coyotes’ staff directory already looks as if it has been through a few Stanley Cup wars.

There’s no owner – after a bankruptcy and prolonged intervention by the NHL – and there are plenty of other holes in the lineup, too, after the team’s work force was chopped by one-third two years ago.

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The Coyotes have accomplished a lot with a little on the ice, but behind the scenes they’re making do with far less than any other team in the league.

“I was the CFO, and we didn’t replace the CFO,” said Coyotes president Mike Nealy, who also now fills the roles of chief operating officer and alternate governor. “We don’t have an owner or a CEO or anything else. I’m running the business.

“We don’t have a vice-president of ticket sales or marketing or corporate sales. We basically just have hard-working staff that are getting it all done.”

The long, sorry saga that has been the Coyotes’ relocation watch will hit its three-year anniversary next Saturday, with an end finally coming into view.

Those years have been a long, tough slog for people like Nealy, who has lost employees left and right as they look for more stable footing.

Every year since the bankruptcy, the NHL has handed down a limited budget for him to work under and somehow every year the Coyotes have overdelivered in the standings. This season, that’s meant the franchise’s first ever division title and first trip to the second round since they were the old Winnipeg Jets in 1987 – an amazing span of futility that has played a role in the team’s current one-foot-out-the-door state.

“It’s really a reflection of the ineptitude of the franchise, if you think about it,” Coyotes GM Don Maloney said to the Arizona Republic this week. “For 33 years, this is only the third time that we advanced? You almost shake your head about it.”

That on-ice success is so new and comes at such a troubled time for the franchise that many on staff and their families aren’t sure what to make of it.

“I’m dealing with people all the time, including my own family, who say, ‘Yeah, it’s going great, but …’ ” Nealy said. “It could be over the next day, and if there’s not ownership a month from now, we could be saying thank you and goodbye.

“We saw that in Atlanta happen pretty quickly [when the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg last spring]”

The Coyotes set attendance and revenue records in their first-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks – all three home games sold out – and have hiked ticket prices 35 per cent from the regular season for their second-round series with the Nashville Predators.

Friday’s Game 1 was expected to set yet another revenue record.

“It’s not the market,” said Nealy, a Minnesota native who spent four year with the Wild before joining the Coyotes. “This team has had many, many unfortunate situations … anything you can think of to not make an organization successful, we’ve been through.

“But the fans are down here. They moved down here like I did from Minnesota, Michigan, Canada – they’re here. We need to give them a reason to switch their allegiances to their previous teams to us. And that’s happening.”

Problem is that may be too little too late after 16 trying years in the desert. Nealy and Co. have made some headway by cutting down the ticket giveaways (1,200 fewer a game) and bringing in more paying customers (roughly 1,500 a game), but Phoenix still had the lowest attendance figure in the NHL this season.

The revenue bumps from these extra playoff dates will also not be enough to dramatically change the team’s massive losses this season, and there remains plenty of uncertainty over whether the team can find a buyer and remain in Arizona beyond the end of the postseason.

It’s possible that could lead to an unprecedented situation where the Coyotes go three or four rounds deep and still end up playing in Quebec City or elsewhere next season.

Even so, if this is how the NHL goes out in Phoenix – with the building full and money finally coming in – it’s not a bad way to be remembered.

“We are doing more with less, and that’s become somewhat of a motto,” Nealy said. “We have what we have, we know what we can control, we focus on that.

“We’ve lost good people, but there are good people here that work very hard. To see the fruits of that with more people in the building and the numbers being positive… [it shows]this market is starting to wake up to the excitement of this team.”