Now that Jim Balsillie’s efforts to pull the Phoenix Coyotes out of their familiar environs and into southern Ontario have been suspended by a U.S. bankruptcy court judge, the big question becomes, ‘Where do the Coyotes go next?’
(That is, other than Phoenix – where they’ll linger for a couple more years until the franchise’s new owner gets the nod-and-wink from the league to relocate.)
Because if there’s one thing made apparent during Balsillie’s latest ill-received attempt to become an NHL owner, it is the ungodly mess that NHL hockey in Arizona has turned out to be.
Tens of millions in losses almost each and every year. Widespread civil apathy at the prospect of losing the team. An arena lease that is somewhere between an albatross and an albatross pregnant with a dangerous number of additional albatrosses after months of experimental fertility treatments.
Not a full-on license to print money, in other words. And most definitely not something even a seasoned professional such as Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character from Pulp Fiction could clean up. Therefore, the idea the Coyotes will still be where they are now a decade, or even five years from today, celebrating Radoslav Suchy Appreciation Night and doling out shares in the team to any soul who buys a 10-game ticket package, seems to be wishful thinking at best.
So if the Yotes aren’t destined to remain in Phoenix and the allure of $400 million expansion fees for future Canadian franchises will prevent them from moving north of the border, let’s return to the question in the opening paragraph – where will they land?
My bet? Kansas City. Kansas City, there they’ll come.
Forget about Las Vegas, Houston and Seattle. For various reasons, none of those towns yet posses the ready-made package of interest and infrastructure the NHL will prefer in a relocation destination.
Kansas City, on the other hand, is about as good as it gets. Its greater metro area has about 2,000,000 people; that may not sound like much in comparison to other NHL cities, but the relatively close proximity K.C. has to St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, Minnesota and Chicago means it would be able to draw from a much larger regional base of hockey fans.
As well, K.C. has The Sprint Center, a new building that (a) has been looking for an anchor tenant for nearly two years; and (b) is run by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) – a.k.a. a massive jewel in the corporate crown of Philip Anschutz, owner of the L.A. Kings and a significant part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s power base.
Those details, particularly the last one about the Anschutz tie-in, have not gone unnoticed by the league’s power players – at least one of whom also believes K.C. has the inside track.
“You see the connections (Kansas City) has to the (NHL board of) governors – Anschutz, (AEG president and CEO Tim) Leiweke – and it’s hard not to see them influencing the process in K.C.’s favor,” said one NHL governor who spoke on condition his name not be used. “I think the Balsillie debacle has proven that if (the league is) bringing other teams or more teams back to Canada - and a bunch of other U.S.-based franchises don’t fall apart in the meanwhile - the NHL is going to demand huge expansion fees for anyone interested.
“Not so in Kansas City, though. There’s your classic market that the league would lower expectations for in order to keep team locations close to Gary’s overall blueprint for the product. And any league business venture that helps an existing board member’s interests is going to be looked at and embraced before any other.”
Even if you don’t accept that the Anscutz/Kings connection automatically makes Kansas City a frontrunner to host NHL hockey on a full-time basis, you might change your tune when you consider the quiet, steady politicking of league bigwigs – the anti-Balsillie-ing, if you will – that has been conducted behind the scenes for the better part of the past five years in hopes of achieving that goal.
Paul McGannon, a Kansas City-area businessman behind NHL21, a grassroots organization dedicated to bringing an NHL franchise back to that area, has been the source of much of that lobbying. In a conversation with THN.com Wednesday, he spoke cautiously, but optimistically about the potential for his dream to finally be realized.
“I think right now where we are is just (waiting) to see what’s available,” McGannon said. “What’s apparent is, everybody has to line up their vision and see how that vision fits with the league and the board (of governors). So what we have to do is respect that. Like everybody else, we’d like to get started, but we have to see how we fit with the league’s future plans.”
Interestingly, McGannon, who worked with the league and AEG to host an exhibition game between the Blues and Kings last September – and who will play the same role when the Kings and Islanders play an exhibition game this fall – doesn’t think the Coyotes necessarily will move to Kansas City.
“Personally, I believe the team will stay there,” he said. “It’s just too big of a market to vacate. It’s the southwest, a huge area that has a lot of people and a lot of transplanted Canadians. All that team has to do is win and that area will develop.
“The NHL was probably early to the party and in five years time that area is going to explode and be like Scottsdale (Arizona), population-wise. If you look at the NFL matrix, the Cardinals are there…and Kansas City is in that football and baseball matrix as well.
“And that’s nothing against Canada; I would love to have the passion of the Toronto area, Montreal, really all the Canadian cities. My personal opinion is, if you could have the player pool, there should be 40 NHL teams. It’s a great sport that should be on display all across Canada and all over the United States, but that’s going to depend on what the governors want to do.”
Doing what the NHL governors want to do is a common theme for McGannon. Take, for instance, his response to a reporter’s question about whether he sees K.C. eventually getting an expansion franchise or a relocated team.
“I think it could go either way, but it’s got to be blessed by the league,” he said. “Whether or not we agree or disagree doesn’t matter, really. We think it’s a great sport and the people involved are just top-drawer. We just want to do things right.”
After Balsillie’s latest court challenge, McGannon’s deference must be music to the ears of Bettman and the owners. And every year the Coyotes continue on their money-hemorrhaging streak, Kansas City’s preparedness and congeniality makes them the prime candidate to stop the bleeding.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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