Is there a team that has deserved relocation, relegation, extinction, or a combination of all three more than the Arizona Coyotes? Let me help you with a hint.
Is there a team that has been propped up by its league longer and to less practical effect? Again, that would have to be a solid no. Not the Mets, not the Pelicans (back when they were the Hornets), not the Washington Mesomorphic Academy, none of them.
And now the kids who wear trousers without pockets are back, not paying their debts to the people who run the arena in which they play and arguing about whether they should or not. Their new owner, Alex Meruelo, is supposed to have the jack to operate this thing (his net worth about $2B, which ought to get it done, debt-wise), and if he doesn’t and just bought it in yet one more distressed-item sale, then we’re back to that age-old question:
What’s so awful about Quebec City? It wants the team, it has a building, and it has billionaires too.
The Coyotes’ entire history is fraught with owners trying not to be there. Original owners Steven Gluckstern and Richard Berke bought the team from the people who ran it in Winnipeg with a plan to move to Minneapolis but couldn’t work out a lease arrangement with the Target Center, for God’s sake. You say you want to live in a new town but you don’t want to buy or rent a house? There’s a message.
Anyway, Berke bought out Gluckstern, then sold the team to Steve Ellman, who used Wayne Gretzky as a front man, and four years after he bought it, Gretzky notwithstanding, Elling shipped it off to a guy named Jerry Moyes, who ran it so well that within three years the league was paying its bills. Moyes declared bankruptcy before the NHL could turn the team over to Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, then tried to sell it to Blackberry owner Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move it to Hamilton, Ontario. The league rejected Balsillie, tried to revive the Reinsdorf deal, failed, and then bought the whole hot mess itself.
That takes us only through 2010, and to shorten this blob of tedium for you, they have had since had two more owners, four failed offers to buy the team, a new arena built in Glendale at taxpayers’ expense despite taxpayers’ objections (hint: imagine guys in a business suits and balaclavas), and every time it looked like the team itself had figured out how to play competent, competitive hockey, ownership changed, general managers changed, coaches changed, and nothing changed. The Coyotes remain one of the few certifiable money sinkholes in North American sports; according to the clearly psychotic guesstimators at Forbes, they have lost $135 million in the last decade.
So what is the magic in this land that keeps bringing people who say they have money but only as long as they don’t have to pay any bills? Did Gary Bettman get caught up in some Scottsdale-based Ponzi scheme and can only keep it quiet by finding new owners who either lose interest or their wallets within three years? (Answer: not that we know of.) Are the Coyotes a Ponzi scheme themselves? Did Canada suddenly decide to hate hockey and should have no more teams? Is Quebec City, which built an arena on spec waiting either for the Coyotes, Islanders, or expansion, such a terrible place for the league’s profile? The idea that the Montreal Canadiens are preventing the move because it likes its hegemony over Quebec and the Maritimes ignores the facts that (a) the Canadiens have had to pay into the Coyote cesspool just like everyone else, and (b) nobody just pops over to Montreal from Newfoundland to catch the Sabres game.
Are 18,000 people paying Canadian money worse than 10,000 paying American money? The NHL’s profile has not been enhanced by being in Arizona, not because Arizona doesn’t have fans or money but because it has been a spectacular magnet for fly-by-night owners and pretenders to the throne.
That has to be at least partially Bettman’s fault, since he works for the owners, who surely know other billionaires just from the secret billionaire picnics they all have in Monaco every few months. Surely there is one out there who doesn’t feel the need to play hardball on the rent, or on a new building paid for by east-side taxpayers (Scottsdale, where the rich folks are) as opposed to west-side taxpayers (Glendale, where the cheap land is). Meruelo is the richest owner the team has ever had. He isn’t even out of the honeymoon stage, so he doesn’t have an excuse for getting so flinty so fast. He’s trying not to be like all this franchise’s previous owners, and this is no way to get that done.
But we know the most obvious way. Le Belle Province. Je Me Souviens. Quebec City. Canada. The country that figured out the virus while we were still pretending it was an ingrown toenail. With all due respect to the unlucky fans of Greater Phoenix, you got 25 years of being run by the guys who gave you the Oakland Seals, who died three deaths just to get to Dallas. Maybe the league will be kind and give you an expansion franchise. That seems the best way to succeed in this league now.