Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hockey in the Desert

Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November
The Coyotes battle the Oil
I know of no reason, this Coyotes season should ever be forgot.

It may end up being their last, but more on that later.

For the next installment of my epic journey, I ventured to the desert (where, by the law of “strange things happen to the protagonist (me)” our plane was delayed because it was raining in Phoenix).  The fact that it was “unseasonably cold” (high 60s) was obviously not a problem for me, it did make our desert excursion a little bit odd.  But, after hiking and prototypical tourism, it was finally time for some hockey.

Why is this here? No one knows, some say it just appeared from the sands...
(Nobody said that)


Now, I will say this much, the Arena is a pretty good place to watch a game, even if it is in the middle of bloody nowhere (I did not see a single bus before of after the game, and there certainly wasn’t a train (also I don’t think Phoenix even has a train system in the first place)).    The lack of transportation is completely befuddling, given that the Arena is in the same complex as the larger (and Super Bowl hosting) University of Phoenix Stadium, meaning that millions of people come there each and every year for sporting events, and they haven’t even stretched out a token bus line to the complex.


All quibbles aside, the game was quite entertaining. Lots of great defense, it was really old school hockey. The first period was tight, with both teams having chances, and but neither converting, due mainly to the strong play of the squads in their own zones. The Yotes opened the scoring early in the second on a wicked backhand, and converted on their second power play later in the frame. The teams traded goals in the third, with Edmonton tallies creating an uncomfortably loud roar among the crowd.


Now, of course, it's time to take a look at the Big Board.  Obviously, I've added the blue pin in Phoenix, along with green ones in Edmonton and Winnipeg (for the Hawks game last month), but I've added a new color, purple, for games I've got tickets for but haven't, you know, been to yet.  Why? Well to break up the monotony, and because I've been running out of pink ones.

I would like to make a couple side comments unrelated to the contest itself, but one short and one really long. First, I found it interesting that the interviewed player who got the most cheers wasn't Shane Down, the captain, or anyone else, but Paul Bissonnette, commonly known as Biznasty, and as one of the most prolific Tweeters in the game. His hockey stats are less compelling. This season he has played 6 games, and was in fact a scratch on Saturday. That just goes to show how prolific twitter has become.

Secondly, and more importantly, much has been and continues to be said about the health of the Coyotes franchise. In order for a team to be successful, it needs two interrelated things.  A strong fan base and competent ownership.  As a longtime Blackhawks fan, I know the problems that can befall a team due to the lack of one or both of these (usually the lack of one contributes to the downfall of the other).  The Coyotes currently have neither of these two necessities, however there is a small but loyal fan base in the city, and, with the multitude of “snowbirds” who retired to Arizona, many from NHL cities, there could be so much more.  The problem then, is ownership.  As is very well documented, the team is currently owned by the league, which really does not want to own a team and has actively been looking for a buyer since purchasing the team from bankruptcy.  Of course, finding a good owner is the first order of business, which is unfortunately proving easier said than done.  Admittedly, before I came here I was all on the relocation bandwagon, especially to a city like Quebec or Hartford which had lost a beloved team to economic reasons which have been mostly alleviated.  Now, truthfully I’m not so sure.  The fact that the crowd present seemingly cheered more for Oilers goals than when Phoenix scored was a bit of a blow to the credibility of the Yotes, but there was definitely a small, vibrant group of people who loved their hockey team.  That feeling, along with stories of former Thrashers fans who hated seeing their team leave (full disclosure: I was in Toronto when the sale was announced so I got a different view on the TV that evening) makes me want to rethink the idea of shipping a team off to Canada.  I want hockey to succeed in the desert.

So, without further ado, some ideas to make the sport work in a non-traditional market.  The first step is relatively obvious.  The league needs to find a owner, preferably one with deep pockets who can absorb losses for a relatively considerable amount of time and can spend money for talent. Someone like Mark Cuban, who turned the Dallas Mavericks from a bottom dweller into the reigning NBA champion. The dude spent millions upon millions in order to create a great team, and it paid off. It would be easier to do that in the NHL because the league has a salary cap (unlike the NBA).

Secondly, and arguably most importantly, the team needs exposure. The game I went to against the Oilers wasn't on TV locally. Again, as a Hawks fan, I know how a team needs a full TV package to keep the fans interested. I don't know what kept the game off Fox Sports Arizona (probably college football) but somehow, the team needs to have 82 games on the television. Also as part of the exposure, and likely because of it, is the need to merchandise. I know it sounds silly, but being able to buy something as simple as a t-shirt helps with the cultivation of the fan. To measure this amount of exposure, I like to use something I call the "Wal-Mart index". It's simple, really, just go to a Wal-Mart or similar store in or around the city (for this team, I went to a Supercenter on the outskirts of town, near an outlet mall) and see how much stuff there is for the local NHL team, and how prominently it is placed.

So, how easy was it to find Coyotes gear in town? Very difficult. Wal-Mart had absolutely nothing in their men's department. I wasn't expecting much, but I got even less. The worst part is that there were NFL jerseys for almost half the league. A Packers jersey? Can do. Arizona State slippers? Yep. St. Louis Cardinals NL champions shirt? Got it. A Coyotes shirt? Nope, not here. Any place I went in, the amount of out of town apparel dwarfed Coyotes gear. Why is this? Well it likely has a lot to do with the fact that the Yotes are averaging just a hair over 10,000 per game, good for 29th in the league. Again, this has a lot to do with the ownership problem. The fans in Arizona can see the vultures circling, waiting to whisk the team off north, and don't want to make a monetary and emotional investment in a team that could very well be gone this time next year. Who could blame them?

The team is good, with a very strong defense and good goaltending. The question is whether or not someone can make the investment to ensure hockey meshes with cacti.

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