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Coyotes a winner on ice, but still a business loser

In hockey, it is this year's if-a-saguaro-falls-in-the-desert question.

Following a near miraculous on-ice performance last season given the surrounding turmoil, can the still-orphan Phoenix Coyotes do it again, and if they do, will anyone in the Valley of the Sun take notice?

There are indeed a brave band of shinny loyalists in Arizona, who have suffered through their team's bankruptcy, its near move to Hamilton, its many travails since and its current residence in limbo, underwritten by the very generous City of Glendale while the NHL waits impatiently for a solution. The problem for the franchise is there aren't enough of them, they aren't willing to spend enough money, and their ranks have surely been thinned by the perpetual uncertainty. Anyone who anted up for season tickets this past summer was making a leap of faith.

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A new rich guy has entered the picture - Matt Hulsizer, about whom very little is known, and who is largely absent from the public record, though he did have the wherewithal to deposit $25-million (U.S.) into an escrow account to demonstrate that he was serious. But it is worth asking where said rich guy was lo these many months when the team was available for a song, how he differs from the other rich guys (Jerry Reinsdorf, the plucky lads from Ice Edge) who in the end decided to pass, and why would he lock himself into a situation that all but guarantees massive annual operating losses unless the city fathers are as willing to provide massive annual subsidies?

With Winnipeg patiently waiting, and with thousands of people marching in Quebec City last week, hoping that an NHL team might return to their fair burg - and with the federal ruling party surely torn between the perception that they might be buying votes by putting money into an arena there, and the possibility that they could buy votes by putting money into an arena there - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may have two Canadian cities not named Hamilton that would happily provide a safe haven for the Yotes.

That said, the situation certainly wasn't any better a year ago. The ugly after-effects of the court battle with Jim Balsillie were still fresh in memory, as was Wayne Gretzky's embarrassing exit. Hardly any tickets or sponsorships were sold, and the franchise was effectively being operated as a financially-hamstrung ward of the league.

From that dreadful starting point, general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett managed to spin something quite remarkable, proving that professional athletes are either oblivious or can thrive with just the right amount of siege mentality. The Coyotes, a near-consensus choice to finish last or close to it, wound up instead fourth in the Western Conference, then extended the Detroit Red Wings to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, and for a very short time, hockey was all the rage.

There is every reason to believe the Coyotes will again be a pretty good team - not because of the whole us-against-the-world thing, but because Maloney has assembled a very decent foundation, and because Tippett is an excellent head coach. If they are again in the top half of the conference standings, it won't be nearly the same bolt out of the blue.

But in a city where every hockey story of the past few years has had a dark undercurrent, in a place where the economy is still reeling, at a time when all professional sports are seeing empty seats where there were none before, dealing with both the shortage of recreational cash and the ever-better options for watching at home, the Coyotes would have to be remarkable indeed to stand out in a place where they are but a peripheral part of the culture.

There figure to be a lot of lonely nights, no matter how good the team is, enough empty seats to give the mysterious Hulsizer pause.

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Funnier things have happened in pro sports than a sudden outburst of hockey mania in a place where every indicator points down.

Though not many.

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