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The Globe and Mail

Coyotes in high spirits; low in attendance

For the few, the brave remaining fans of the Phoenix Coyotes, it's been a problem at Arena all season.

With so few bodies in the lower bowl, the temperature has dropped considerably, chilling an NHL fan base already frosted over by an ugly bankruptcy process that could finally be nearing a conclusion in the near future.

"Believe me, in the first couple of games where we drew 4,000 or 5,000, you definitely did miss that body heat," said Tony Johns, a long-time Coyotes season-ticket holder from the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, Ariz. "It's not a sensation that I would recommend to any hockey fan."

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Body heat won't be a problem tonight at the sold-out Air Canada Centre, where 19,000 strong will be on hand, as always, to cheer on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The financially beleaguered Coyotes, meanwhile, are in town for their first visit to the hockey mecca in nearly four years, bringing with them an impressive 19-12-2 record.

The buzz in the building for this game, however, is likely to stem from the Arizona franchise's wild off-season - filled with talk of relocation to Southern Ontario and a push to "Make It Seven," as in the number of NHL teams located north of the United States border.

An attempt by former Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes to sell the franchise to BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie failed in September, but the damage done has been evident most nights in Phoenix as the team's suburban rink is often one-third full.

On the ice, the Coyotes have been just fine, playing themselves into playoff position in the Western Conference, despite going into battle with the league's lowest payroll and preseason expectations just as low.

Players credit netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and new head coach Dave Tippett with the team's early success, pointing to the group's minuscule goals against (fourth best in the NHL) as evidence the Coyotes can play with any team in the league.

"Bryzgalov, I think if he were playing in a bigger market, he would be the hands down Vézina [Trophy]front-runner right now," Coyotes defenceman Adrian Aucoin said yesterday. "I've played in front of a lot of goalies and he has really been our guy all year. He's won lots of games for us - it's been pretty amazing."

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As for the atmosphere at home, where the Coyotes have one of the league's best records (12-5-0), Aucoin said the attendance woes haven't been as big a factor as one might expect.

"I'm lucky enough that I'm a little older, so I've played in empty buildings," he said, recalling some lean years spent with the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks. "I've learned over the years that, as a professional, you just play as hard as you can either way.

"Absolutely, when there's a full building it really motivates you sometimes when it's a little tougher to get motivated, but we've got a great group and some good characters. That's why I think we've been good - we've played hard all the time.

"Especially with the uncertainty with the organization, it's helped to feed off that with the old us-against-everyone deal."

A 36-year-old veteran now with his sixth organization, Aucoin was one of the few free agents to sign with Phoenix amidst the turmoil this past summer - something he says he was only willing to do because he "was 99-per-cent sure the team was not going to be moving" this season.

Even with the continued uncertainty surrounding the ownership situation, Aucoin has been impressed at how well-run the organization is despite big cuts to the team's budget and staff.

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"I've been on teams where players complain about this, complain about that," he said. "Right now, we really have nothing to complain about. I mean, for a team that's struggled, we've been treated very well. … We've had everything that I've ever had in any other organization and it's been first class."

And those "temperature" issues in the lower bowl? Well, Aucoin said everyone realizes there is a ways to go on that front.

"The fans that are there are hard core," he said. "And they're desperate to keep hockey in the desert."


Lowest average per-game attendance in the NHL,

since 1989-90 (* - part season):

Team, season Average attendance - capacity

Minnesota North Stars, 1990-91: 7,838 - 15,000

Carolina Hurricanes, 1998-99: 8,188 - 21,273

Carolina Hurricanes, 1997-98: 9,086 - 21,273

New York Islanders, 1999-2000: 9,748 - 16,234

*Phoenix Coyotes, 2009-10: 9,825 - 17,799

Ottawa Senators, 1994-95: 9,879 - 10,585

Tampa Bay Lightning, 1992-93: 10,014 - 10,425

New York Islanders, 1991-92: 10,039 - 16,234

Hartford Whalers, 1992-93: 10,144 - 15,635

Ottawa Senators, 1993-94: 10,391 - 10,585

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