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The Coyotes Have A Salt Lake City Plan

against the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena on February 24, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona.
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images|

Pack your bags, Howler.

The Coyotes spent Wednesday with their heads buried in the Sonoran sand. Their official account, Baghdad Bob–style, was tweeting confidently about an upcoming land auction upon which they hope to build a new arena, even after the mayor of neighboring Scottsdale noted that the site will not have indoor plumbing, which is judged by many to be an important thing for arenas to have. The players, after a thrilling overtime win in Vancouver, were not made available to non-state-owned media. All is well, insists the dead team walking.

By this time next week, the Arizona Coyotes could be no more. The NHL has been drawing up the papers to move the team to Salt Lake City, Utah, according to reports from basically every reporter. It's not a done deal, they insist, but the league does not go to the bother of brokering the sale and subsequent purchase of a franchise, with all the billable hours that entails, nor does it formulate a 2024–25 schedule that includes SLC but not Tempe, just to have a contingency plan.

The current scenario: Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo would sell the team directly to the NHL for $1 billion, and the league would turn around and sell the franchise to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith for $1.3 billion. The SLC Coyotes (or Yeti or whatever) would begin play this fall in the Delta Center, which has some pretty rough sightlines for hockey, but which would undergo renovations to serve as the team's temporary home until a new multipurpose arena could be built. Smith has the money and willingness to spend it that the NHL craves, and, crucially, the political capital to actually get a new arena. Whether the team thrives in Utah or not, this will not be another Arizona quagmire.

Because holy shit has it been a disaster. That is no reflection on the local fans and their passion; the Arizona project failed at providing any sort of success or stability from the moment the franchise arrived from Winnipeg in 1996. Since that time, the Coyotes have called home three buildings in three cities, had seven different ownership groups, and won a grand total of two playoff series. Their arenas were either not made for NHL hockey or not near where people live; they've been seized by the league after their rogue owner tried to sell the team to be moved to Ontario; they've been evicted and suffered the ignominy of playing in a college arena; they've failed time and time again to inspire voters and lawmakers to grant them a new barn. Gary Bettman's dream of the desert is still strong, but he only has so much patience—28 years' worth, as it turns out.

It sucks! It sucks for the players, who have been forced into substandard facilities and who have had to deal with the ever-looming specter of uprooting their lives and families. It sucks for the fans, who are going to lose a team that never quite loved them back. It sucks for the league, which saw dollar signs in the Phoenix market but could never shake the Mickey-Mouse label with the Coyotes flailing as they have.

Ah, but there's a potential twist down the line:

Sources said part of the agreement to sell now could include language that would allow Meruelo to ‘reactivate’ the Coyotes franchise in future years, including name and trademarks, if a new arena is built and terms and conditions of the agreement with the NHL are met.

Phoenix is a top-five American city and top-15 metro area by population, and still growing. No league is willingly leaving that sort of money on the table. So maybe this promise of future Coyotes is a way to save face or to avoid a court battle, but I do genuinely believe the NHL is determined to make Phoenix work, eventually. They are simply no longer optimistic enough to put the cart before the horse when it comes to an arena. It's a valuable lesson to have finally learned, if an expensive one.

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