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From his perch in Box 1,141, Daryl Jones was just one of 17,532 spectators to jam the Arena for the Phoenix Coyotes' home opener Saturday night.

But Jones had a special interest in the proceedings and a special vantage point from which to watch them. As part of the NHL's ongoing stewardship of the bankrupt franchise, the league purchased a private box to host - among others - Jones, a prospective buyer of the team; Heather Schroeder, president of the fan club; and a handful of bankruptcy lawyers who handled the court proceedings on the league's behalf.

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For Jones, born in Bassano, Alta., and the head of Ice Edge Holdings, a company formed with a view to buying the Coyotes, it was his first game in the arena. Jones met with team president Doug Moss on Friday and spent part of the second intermission renewing acquaintances with Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs, all part of his strategy to buy the team once it emerges from bankruptcy and run it in Arizona - with the occasional home game to be played in Saskatoon.

Even if the Coyotes came out on the losing end of a 2-0 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jones emerged from the experience with his view reinforced. Under the right circumstances, he said, the NHL can make a go of it in Phoenix.

"What this tells me is that hockey can succeed here," said Jones, indicating the capacity white T-shirt clad crowd, most of whom attended the game on heavily discounted tickets. "There's clearly a latent fan base that will come if you can get them to the rink.

"One encouraging anecdotal thing is you see a lot of people wearing jerseys. That means they've been around for a while and have followed the team for a while."

Jones stayed in a hotel in nearby Scottsdale and braved the commute that many people believe is behind part of the team's struggles - that the Phoenix metropolitan areas is so sprawling that the drive from the east side of the city to the west discourages many potential fans from attending.

Granted, this was a Saturday night game that began early - 6 p.m. locally - but traffic flow wasn't an issue.

As for the building, Jones said: "I've gone to a lot of games in a lot of rinks. Yesterday, I walked around the top here. I don't think there's a bad seat in this arena. It's brand new, great seating and great facilities. If you get people in here, the business side should succeed."

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Short term, the business side is getting a boost from Schroeder's booster club, which spearheaded the Save The Coyotes campaign. Philosophically, it is reminiscent of a similar initiative in its last days of the team's Winnipeg incarnation - the grassroots Save The Jets campaign that marshalled community support for the team, but ultimately couldn't provide an answer to the arena question.

Provided the city negotiates lease concessions with the prospective owners, Arena isn't going to be the issue. The challenge will be to fill it with paying customers.

Schroeder's season tickets are in the last row of the lower bowl and she pays $40 per seat, per game to attend. According to Schroeder, the uncertainty over the franchise's future undermined the team's ability to sell tickets until just days before the NHL regular season began.

"Now, at least, we can do something," she said. "We can buy tickets. We're showing up for the White Out - and that's going to keep going."

Her latter assertion remains to be seen.

The Coyotes' season-ticket base is down about 30 per cent year over year and hovers in the 5,000-to-6,000, by one estimate - still more than three or four other teams in the NHL. For Thursday's next home game against the St. Louis Blues, the Coyotes expect to attract a crowd roughly half the size of Saturday's.

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It may be a while before Phoenix attracts a sellout crowd again, so the disappointment in losing to Columbus was both visible and palpable for the players. The Coyotes outplayed the visiting Blue Jackets, but were stymied, largely by goaltender Mathieu Garon's strong play in net and an inability to convert numerous power-play opportunities.

According to team captain Shane Doan, the Coyotes' supporters are sophisticated enough to know that even if the result was disappointing, the team played well enough to win.

"Hockey's been here long enough that the fans who've been our fans know the game," said Doan. "We've been here 13 years; it's not like we just got here two or three years ago.

"But it's disappointing - to leave them with that kind of taste in their mouths. It's never what you want, especially with the situation we had built up."

As for Jones and his investors in Ice Edge, he hopes that by taking a methodical and low-key approach to the negotiations with both the league and the city, he may ultimately get the deal to come his way.

"It's preliminary in terms of we've been talking to them for a long time and have a great relationship," said Jones, "but the next step is, the NHL gets the team and then we probably start the process more formally."

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