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Rising from the ashes, one cheap ticket at a time Add to ...

eduhatschek@globeandmail.com

Unexpectedly, they will, for the first night anyway, play in front of a packed house.

Deeply discounted tickets and an aggressive marketing campaign mean the Phoenix Coyotes' home opener today against the Columbus Blue Jackets will feature not only a sellout, but also a WhiteOut.

It is a concept borrowed from the team's days as the Winnipeg Jets, back when selling tickets meant a captive and enthusiastic fan base that didn't need to be coaxed into sampling the product at a difficult-to-access arena operating in a non-traditional market.

The irony is rich; the Coyotes tapping into their Canadian roots when it looked as though they could end up back in Canada had Judge Redfield T. Baum ruled in Jim Balsillie's favour during the bankruptcy case that hung like a cloud over the franchise all summer.

Ultimately, Baum's decision will determine the future - and future home - of the franchise.

But for tonight, it will be all sweetness and light: an afternoon tailgate party organized in the Jobing.com Arena parking lot by the Save The Coyotes coalition, followed by a game played in a visually stunning building full of spectators clad in white T-shirts, coaxed into buying tickets slashed by as much as 80 per cent.

Philosophically, the Coyotes figured that papering the house was far better than the alternative, which was to play in front of 10,000 or more empty seats, the way they did in the preseason, or the way they might a month into the season.

With seats in the upper bowl offered at $15 (U.S.) for tonight's opener, the overall gate may not cover Ed Jovanovski's paycheque - yesterday was the first payday of the NHL season - but according to team president Doug Moss, it is a start.

"We knew, with everything that had gone on with us, we had to re-engage in the community," Moss said, "and put the focus on what's happening on the ice, instead of in the courtroom."

Five months of bankruptcy hearings can create a certain level of gallows humour, and it has even affected the ultra-positive Moss, who says with a weak laugh: "The good news is the community knows more about this team than ever before. I know Saturday, there's going to be people going to the game that haven't been out for a long time.

"But we also know that no matter what happens Saturday, we've got a lot of hard work ahead of us. That's what happens when you lose a whole summer of selling."

According to Coyotes newcomer Adrian Aucoin, the bankruptcy proceedings don't filter into the dressing room any more, now that the season is under way and the team is guaranteed to play out the year in Phoenix.

"To be honest, we use it more as comic relief. You have to," said Aucoin, who previously played for teams in Long Island and Chicago that also had trouble attracting fans. "The game is such a serious business now. Sometimes you have to step back and remember that what we do for a living is supposed to be the most fun thing in the world, and it really is."

Before shifting their operational base to Glendale, the Coyotes played their games downtown as a tenant of the NBA's Phoenix Suns in America West Arena (now the U.S. Airways Center). Overall attendance in the early years wasn't bad, but playing in a building designed for basketball, with obstructed-view seats virtually at ice level, made no financial sense.

But most of the people with the financial wherewithal to pay full price for tickets live in Scottsdale, which can be a nightmare commute midweek. So for general manager Don Maloney, the object is clear.

"We have to give people a reason to drive out to Glendale and get involved with the team," he said. "We believe in the Phoenix market, but we just know the hockey side has to deliver. We can't keep promising to deliver for six, seven, eight years and not play a playoff game and not get the community excited about this team."

Maloney sees a possible parallel in the Coyotes' Glendale neighbours, the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, who were also an object of ridicule when he was originally hired two years ago, but made it to the Super Bowl last year.

"I remember reading in the papers that summer, 'Could they survive in the desert?' It was the same type of public perception. They were so bad, blah, blah, blah. Then last year, they got on a run. They're selling out preseason games. They're the hottest ticket in town," he said. "It's only those crazy Leaf fans and crazy Rangers fans that keep showing up, rain or shine."

Maloney worked in that crazy Rangers market before joining the Coyotes, but he also had a stint with the Islanders, who face many of the same financial issues as Phoenix. When the Islanders were winning championships, they were the toast of Long Island. When they slipped into mediocrity, interest waned quickly.

Jovanovski's NHL travels took him from Florida to Vancouver and now to Phoenix. As a first-year pro, Jovanovski played for the Panthers' team that made it to the 1996 Stanley Cup final, spurred on by a novice fan base that showered the ice with plastic rats whenever the team scored a goal.

"You gotta win," said Jovanovski, who saw first-hand that on-ice success can capture an audience, even in a non-traditional market.

"Bottom line, you gotta be in the hunt and be a playoff team. If you take out the Canadian teams, it's the same everywhere else in this league. You gotta have success to draw fans.

"Look at Chicago. For years no one came."

Aucoin was there, playing for the Blackhawks when no one came.

"Going to Calgary for me was a big deal," Aucoin said. "I'd give a couple of tickets to my plumber and he'd practically start crying, he was so happy. In Chicago, you'd give away six tickets a night and people would say, 'Ah, I don't know if I can make it.' "

The larger challenge for the Coyotes' players will be to keep a level of professionalism as the season progresses, if attendance falls off a cliff the way it probably will, once the initial marketing push ends. Moss's staff has introduced all sorts of special promotions - family nights on weekends, all-you-can-eat concessions on Thursdays, season-ticket plans in parts of the lower bowl that start at around $40 a ticket. It is a balancing act between creating revenue and interest.

"There's nothing better than playing in front of a sold-out crowd, no question about that," Jovanovski said. "Is it difficult playing in front of 10,000 people? Absolutely, it is. Any time there's excitement and energy in a building, you feed off it."

If the key to the season really is winning, then the answer may rest with Ilya Bryzgalov, the big, quirky Russian goalie who came along two years ago on the waiver wire and suddenly made a difference in the team's competitive level. Maloney believes Bryzgalov, undefeated in his first two games and sensational in both, is the key to the season.

"I don't care at all," Bryzgalov said, brushing off a bankruptcy question as easily as he turns aside a shot. "I can't do anything about it. That's why I don't even follow it.

"If they're going to change the place we play, they'll call us and let us know."

 

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