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Can Hulsizer save the Coyotes?

By Stu Hackel

Matthew Hulsizer, the Chicago businessman who describes himself as "a hockey fan, a hockey coach and a hockey player" who would "like to join the club," met with the NHL Board of Governors executive committee at their meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, today. The business at hand: his desire to buy the Phoenix Coyotes.

Afterward, Hulsizer answered questions from the media. Here are some highlights of that:

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"I think they wanted to know what kind of guy I was," Hulsizer replied when asked what the executive committee talked to him about. Good for the governors, because some pretty bad guys have weaseled their way into the NHL's ownership ranks, or at least tried to, and the problems they caused have been substantial.

All sorts of procedures have been adopted in recent years by the owners -- financial reviews, background checks and the like --  to vet newbies, and you can only hope that another one won't pull a Boots Del Biaggio and throw an NHL team into financial uncertainty with fraudulent dealings. That's not a certainty. Crooks in ownership aren't just embarrassing, they're bad for business.

The Coyotes' situation is particularly sensitive, given all the uproar that has surrounded them during the past few years. Because of its status as a franchise struggling with fiscal matters in a non-traditional market, fans and media alike hold the Coyotes up as an example of the NHL's Sun Belt strategy gone bad.

True enough, the Coyotes are saddled with some serious handicaps, the biggest being their arena location in Glendale, which was a major blunder by Steve Ellman, the team's owner at the time. The Coyotes should have been based in Scottsdale, the affluent heart of the valley's population center where their fan base is located.

When Ellman couldn't agree with Scottsdale's politicos on the cost of dismantling a shopping mall on the spot where he wanted to build the Coyotes' home (the two sides were not really that far apart), he turned up his nose and struck a deal with the more remote Glendale, which is some miles to the west and not well connected to the rest of the valley by either the highway system or public transportation. You know, it was minor stuff.

It hasn't helped, of course, that the team was awful for so long, but now that GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett have done such a remarkable job of turning it around and building it into a much stronger club, some believe that the poor showing at the turnstiles (average attendance is 10,410 per game, with 40 percent of the seats empty) indicates that the Coyotes can never succeed in the desert.

It is a bad situation, but the recent bankruptcy and ownership furor off the ice has been just as damaging to the Coyotes' efforts at fanbase-building as their once-rotten play on it. Until there is someone in place -- and Mr. Hulsizer wants to be that guy -- who will write the checks, absorb losses and finally impart some stability to this situation, why should anyone think that fans would want to invest their money, time and emotion in a club that could be gone at season's end?

Truth is, even if Hulsizer becomes a potential savior, being stuck out in Glendale makes it a tough proposition. A good team and stable ownership may not be enough, and you hope for his sake that he's going into this with his eyes wide open. If the sale goes through, there will probably be another outcry that Arizona is a lost cause and the Coyotes should be plunked down in hockey country, where they came from. But really, it's still too early to say that the market in Phoenix -- which has in the past supported pro hockey -- can't make a go of it. Unfortunately, it's also too late to locate the team someplace more favorable within the area.