It looks like the shell game that kept hockey alive in Arizona is coming to an end.
That means more than just the pulling of a $15 million annual rug out from under the franchise. It basically leaves the team with nowhere to play next season.
Understandably, the vote has the franchise readying a barrage of legal action. Speaking on Sportsnet’s Hockey Central on Thursday afternoon, Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc said the team’s response will include a request for a temporary restraining order, injunctive relief and a claim for “hundreds of millions in damages.”
The sense from a variety of sources around the league is that the Coyotes are on firm legal ground and stand a good chance of prevailing in a court battle with the city. That, however, is speculation. No one knows exactly how this will play out in the courts, or how far it might have to go before finding resolution.
In the short term, though, a protracted legal battle would likely involve that temporary restraining order. If it does, the team could well return to the Gila River Arena for at least one more season.
Beyond that though? The relationship between the team and the city has been damaged beyond repair. As a result, there’s no future for the Coyotes in Glendale.
But that break-up doesn’t mean they’re booking the moving vans. Not yet, anyway.
There are local options to explore outside of a court-mandated extension at GRA. There is already talk of the team possibly moving back to downtown Phoenix and sharing space short-term with the NBA’s Suns at the US Airways Center. To do that, however, they’d need to come to financial terms with the basketball team that would not include the Coyotes being paid $15 million to play there. And the Coyotes would be the secondary tenant in the building, meaning they’d have to settle for home date scraps. Add in a capacity for hockey of around 16,000, which would rank as the second-smallest in the league, and a batch of obstructed view seats and the USAC option seems like a money pit. Skating there might help build a great case for damages but the Yotes would kill themselves financially in the process.
There have also been suggestions that the NHL and NBA teams partner on a proposed new building, either downtown or in Scottsdale. To do that the Coyotes would have to dig in for several years of heavy losses while waiting for construction to be completed. That doesn’t seem like something this ownership group is primed to accept.
So, barring a court ruling that enforces the original agreement between Glendale and the Coyotes, it seems almost inevitable that this franchise will be in the market for a new home by 2016-17 at the latest.
There aren’t as many options to host them as you might think.
Las Vegas? With a $500 million expansion fee to plant hockey in that town on the horizon, it would be tough to convince the other 29 owners to allow the Coyotes to move there, even temporarily.
Seattle? No suitable building.
Kansas City? The Sprint Center is there, but are the dates? The AEG-run building is one of the busiest in the country.
Houston: There are the same problems that would arise from sharing a building with an NBA team in Phoenix, along with a consumer base that might be less interested in hockey than Arizona.
Hamilton? Don't even get started.
That leaves Quebec City. It has a beautiful new building and a hockey-mad populace, making for the most appealing option. But it’s also located in the Eastern time zone. That creates a world of logistical issues, including an untenable 17/13 conference split and increased travel costs. It would also take another possible expansion site (and half a billion in fees) off the table.
All the speculation makes for a tough summer for the Coyotes and for the most beleaguered fan base in the NHL who now are left to wonder how long their team will be around.