GLENDALE – To characterize 2015 as a disappointing year for Arizona Coyotes fans would be a gross understatement. It’s been a total catastrophe.
The team posted its worst season (24-50-8, 56 points) since moving from Winnipeg to the Valley of the Sun in 1996. That failure wasn’t quite spectacular enough to ensure a top-two draft pick, though, and the Coyotes ended up with the third pick in a draft which, according to the experts, offers precisely two can’t-miss players.
A vote at Wednesday night’s Glendale City Council meeting may bring a fate worse than any single season or botched draft pick can ensure: the team never playing in Gila River Arena or anywhere else in the state of Arizona again.
By a 5-2 decision, the City Council voided the team’s 15-year, $225 million lease and arena management agreement for the venue.
The vote brought out fans fearful of losing their team and scarred by years of uncertainty surrounding the franchise.
Ronda Pearson, clad in a white Coyotes jersey, was so upset that she directly confronted Glendale mayor Jerry Weiers, an outspoken critic of the deal, during the meeting.
“I’ve seen you at so many games a number of times sporting a jersey that looks just like this one with ‘Mayor’ on the back and No. 1 on the back,” said Pearson as she pointed her finger at the mayor. “How much did you pay for your jersey? How much did you pay for your tickets for those games? Because I know I paid a hell of a lot more than you did. I support this team. You don’t.”
The Arizona hockey fan base is known as a small one–the club finished ahead of only Carolina and Florida in average attendance across the NHL at 13,345. However, on Wednesday night, Coyotes fans like Pearson packed the City Council chamber to express their discontent with the council’s actions.
Coyotes co-owner, president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc called the fan support at the meeting “incredible.”
“One thing that was illustrated [Wednesday night] was that we have fantastic fans,” LeBlanc said. “God love them for coming back to this council chamber after all the times they’ve been in here over the years.”
Coyotes fans howled and hollered throughout the meeting, moving Weiers to hammer his gavel several times. Team supporters in attendance eventually adjusted to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down system to display their reaction to comments.
Before casting the final vote, Weiers said he felt the criticism was “unjust” because the issue surrounding the meeting was too complex for the fans to understand.
A fan in attendance shouted, “Are you insulting us?”
Weiers denied the claim and threatened to remove any interrupting parties from the meeting before explaining his vote.
“The fact is I believe, as a majority of this council does, that there was a violation of the Arizona State Revised Statutes, and those were put there specifically to protect the taxpayers,” said Weiers.
“We all hold our right hand up and we swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and some of you may not care about that. I take that very seriously.”
The Coyotes promised to fight the city in court, but if the decision holds, they may have to leave the Phoenix area.
The public sentiment at the meeting was largely supportive of the team. The unofficial tally of private citizens opposed to the void vs. those in favor was 16-4.
Many of the 16 opposed said they were embarrassed by the light the council had cast on the city in the national eye.
Bea Wyatt, the secretary of local youth hockey program Desert Hockey Development, said she believes the decision to void the contract will have adverse effects on the city’s future business dealings.
“It shows that they’re not willing to live up to their contracts,” said Wyatt, who indicated the Coyotes have supported Desert Hockey Development in the past. “Why would anyone want to do business in the city of Glendale with that sort of hassle?”
Pearson had similar concerns after the meeting, focusing on the city’s plans for the arena and surrounding shopping area.
“What they’re going to do is end up bankrupting this city because now they’re going to be faced with a lawsuit that they can’t afford,” she said. “They can’t afford an arena with a tenant. What are they going to do with an arena without a tenant and without anybody coming to Westgate?”
Between the Coyotes and NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, Glendale hosts 49 regular-season hockey and football games per year. Without the Coyotes, that figure would plummet to the Cardinals’ eight home games.
“Look, we all know that we’re in a fight,” LeBlanc said, noting that he’s been impressed with the local response on social media. “We’re in a fight together. I think that the fan base feels that we’ve got a pretty good handle of the situation.”
He urged fans to put a positive spin on their energy.
“Let’s start focusing on what’s important,” he said. “We’ve got a draft coming up here in a couple weeks, probably the most important draft in our franchise history. Let’s turn our attention to where it belongs; let’s turn it to the hockey side.”
The hockey side may not look particularly bright to fans, but right now, it’s better than the alternative.
Michael Nowels is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This story is the product of a partnership between the Cronkite School and Sports Illustrated.