January 7, 2009 Phoenix to Ashes? TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein believes the
NHL's experiment in Phoenix needs to come to an end.
"A chain is as only as strong as its
weakest link" – Old proverb.
[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- There’s quite a
quandary in the Valley of the Sun these days. After years of
non-performance by the Phoenix Coyotes, this year’s model of the
Desert Dogs is highly competitive in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Even more encouraging is the fact that
the success has been molded with a nice melding of veteran experience
and young talent.
Shane Doan continues to be the model of
consistency although he toils with little notice. Ilya Bryzgalov,
although wacky at times, has brought stability to the net not seen
since his Russian brethren, Nikolai Khabibulin strapped on the pads at
America West Arena. The youth movement led by Peter Mueller, Kyle
Turris and Martin Hanzal, plays an exciting brand of up-tempo hockey.
Coyotes patrol around the new Jobing.com arena in Glendale, Arizona, a
stone’s throw from the Arizona Cardinals football stadium. If you’ve
ever been to the old America West barn, you’d know that it was easily
the worst venue in the NHL to watch a game. Part of the development of
Phoenix’s West Valley was the building of a new home for the Coyotes
and both the team and fans are far better off for it.
The Coyotes will never toil in total anonymity as long as one Wayne
Gretzky stands behind the bench. Now in his fourth season as Head
Coach, the Great One remains as competitive in this role as he was as
an active player and he seems to be an exception to the rule that
great players never become good coaches. Though his demeanor is still
primarily reserved and low key, Gretzky can explode at times during
When Tampa Bay’s Evgeny Artyukhin fought
one of his charges, Gretzky screamed across the ice at the young
Russian to call him out for battling without taking his visor off, a
violation of the unwritten hockey fighting code. Though he hasn’t led
the Coyotes to the playoff during his coaching tenure, his five year
extension signed in 2006 combined with the fact that Gretzky holds
additional titles like Managing Partner and Alternate Governor will
enable the Great One to coach as long as his desire burns.
As the calendar turned to 2009, Phoenix
was in the top eight qualifiers for the NHL post season and if they
can find some additional offense before the trade deadline, it could
mark the first time playoff hockey has been experienced in Arizona
While this story sounds optimistic, there are some serious storm
clouds forming around this team. The extent to which jeopardy is
attached to off ice issues of the Phoenix Coyotes could find them in
another home sooner than later. Within the past 15 days, the reality
of the global economic recession has hit home in the Valley, the NHL
has admitted that it has advanced Phoenix’s share of league revenue to
the team in order to keep it current on its bills. While the move is
not unprecedented, it a clear signal that the team is in the midst of
serious financial straits. In a scenario as this, it’s never one
overriding factor that is the cause and so it goes here.
The Glendale location, while spacious and new, is a two hour drive
from the upper class suburbs of Scottsdale and Tempe, where the true
wealth of the region lies. While that works for the NFL Cardinals, who
have eight regular season home dates, it leaves the Coyotes exposed
with the number of home dates five times greater than football. Though
the on ice product has improved, the arena is less than half filled
most nights. Jerry Moyes, the trucking magnate (Swift Transportation)
has swallowed losses, either partially or whole, of $200 million US
since he bought the team with Steve Ellman in 2001. While Moyes has
insured the team has covered its losses, the downturn has affected
Swift to such an extent that it cannot help Moyes underwrite the
losses incurred by the NHL franchise.
other writers have minimized the possibility of a move by the Coyotes
because of its 30 year lease at the Jobing.com arena, the reality is
that ownership could relieve itself of the obligation by declaring a
Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While such a drastic effort would be a serious
black eye to the league, a filing wouldn’t be unprecedented either.
The Los Angeles Kings filed bankruptcy
after former owner Bruce McNall drove it to financial ruin; the team
emerged from the filing, was scooped up by current owner Philip
Anschutz and currently is rebuilding not unlike the Coyotes.
Sources say that the Coyotes have open
talks with arena management to renegotiate the lease to provide more
revenue opportunities (keeping parking, concessions, etc.) to make the
team more viable.
So while the mediation continues, this may be the time for an NHL
franchise to move for the first time in a long time. Hockey is an
experiment in Phoenix that never worked, for years they couldn’t draw
because it was said they played in a bad arena, now they have a good
arena in the wrong part of town. I guess the next reason for failure
is that their dog ate their homework. Maybe it’s finally time to get a
new age owner in the mix in the NHL by allowing Jim Balsillie, the man
who runs the company that produces the Black(Crack)berry to step into
a majority ownership role. He’s been hovering around the league for
years but the old guard of the league refuses to let a Mark Cuban-like
maverick billionaire through its ownership doors. Given the global
economy’s impact on the professional sports landscape, the NHL should
run head first, not away from new blood.
The Chicago Blackhawks were a dormant franchise until long time
William Wurtz passed away. They were run like a rust belt family
business with little acumen; it was the prized possession of Mr. Wirtz
and he had no interest in running like a modern day business. Only
when Wirtz’s son, Rocky, assumed the helm did the team become the
hottest team in the Second City. They disposed of the silly notion of
keeping home games off TV, welcomed back the players of its Golden Era
back in the fold and went from a team that drew 5,000 for a weeknight
home game to one that sets attendance records.
Drastic times calls for drastic measures. The NHL’s sister league, the
NBA isn’t adverse to new ownership or to moving its franchises when
the market doesn’t work for or with them. Charlotte lost the Hornets
to New Orleans but got back the Bobcats when they showed strong
ownership potential. The city of Seattle failed to build the Sonics a
new home and lost their team to Oklahoma City, of all places.
Vancouver wouldn’t support the Grizzles so now they growl in Memphis.
Phoenix celebrated their fifth year anniversary of residence in the
Jobing.com arena yet they rank 26th in attendance, only above Atlanta
Nashville, Columbus and the Islanders.
The most damning evidence of the failure
of a franchise is when the fans vote with their feet to stay away. The
Phoenix experiment should come to an end; the market has proven that
hockey is of marginal importance to its landscape, so it’s time to
break up the log jam of teams located in markets that should have
never been entered.
If they’ve truly suffered the massive
losses they claim, let the Coyotes file Chapter 11, get out of their
lease and let Balsillie taken them to southern Ontario to start a nice
rivalry with Buffalo and Toronto. Think hockey fans along that
corridor would welcome a team with some established stars, young
talent and a Great One behind the bench with open arms?
Let this team serve as the trial balloon
for the likes for Nashville, Atlanta, Florida and Columbus to find new
homes as well. It’s the right time for this chain to lose its weakest
SWINGING WITH HARROLD
In baseball, a player that can play more than one position is known as
a utility man. In the NBA, one that shuttles between guard and forward
is called a swing man. In hockey, the ability to shift between offense
and defense is not as prevalent, due in part that one mostly skates
forward on offense and backward on defense. While I’ve oversimplified
the differences in the roles, the ability to shift between the two
roles is rare in today’s NHL rife with specialty players.
Peter Harrold, the second year pro with
the Los Angeles Kings is one of the few who provides Head Coach Terry
Murray with roster flexibility by shuttling back and forth. Originally
signed by the Kings as a free agent after a four year collegiate
career at Boston College, the Kirtland Hills, Ohio native bounced back
and forth between Los Angeles and their AHL affiliate in Manchester
during the unfortunate Marc Crawford regime. He did show enough
potential to GM Dean Lombardi to hold on to when Harold signed a three
year contract over the summer.
Terry Murray installed as the new bench coach, the status quo appeared
to be in place as Harrold was a healthy scratch in six of their first
nineteen games. But when asked to provide roster flexibility by
jumping up to right wing on occasion, Peter stepped into the role and
has played in every game since December 1. He’s supplanted veteran Tom
Preissing in the lineup, not a small feat considering Priessing has
two-years remaining on an $11 million deal he inked two-years ago and
Harrold toils for not much above the minimum.
You can’t really credit Murray for a stroke of coaching genius by
plugging in the 25 year old player into a position that he functions
well in, rather the re-positioning was born out of necessity. A month
into the season with injuries mounting along the forward wall, the
coaching staff came to the defenseman and asked if he could play
"I told them I’d never played wing and
they still put me there," Harrold joked before the Kings’ match
against the Philadelphia Flyers. "I talked to the staff got my
assignments down and I guess I did alright. I kept at it every game
and it got easier as it went on. I play more of a defensive style of
forward and the biggest challenge for me has been acquiring the
instincts you need on the forecheck. The most difficult part of the
transition is making sure I’m in the right position when I go into the
offensive zone and recognizing when it’s too late to go in. I’d rather
play that style than giving up offensive chances in my own end to the
While Alex Ovechkin shouldn’t be concerned with his goal scoring
titles with Harrold’s additional play on right wing, his ability to
swing back and forth could be a coming trend in the age of a salary
"If I didn’t make the move I wouldn’t be
playing, it’s as simple as that. I’ve been playing defense all my life
but if they want to put me on the wing, that’s fine too."
With second year defenseman scheduled to
return from a torn labrum after the All Star break, the Kings will
have a log jam on the blueline. Harrold’s flexibility may save him
another trip to the AHL, a lesson for any player struggling to stay at
the NHL level.
I'M JUST SAYING...
The Kings are building a nice story with fresh young faces in the
locker room. While there’s actually playoff talk at Casa del Staples,
the lack of an elite scoring winger and its front loaded home schedule
(they’ve played 25 of their first 38 game in Los Angeles) are major
barriers to them playing in the second season. This team is a vastly
improved team over the 71 point disaster of last season, especially on
the defensive end.
Last week, GM Dean Lombardi and his
minions took a significant gamble by dealing away veteran netminder
LaBarbera, a record setter at the AHL
level, was given enough opportunities over a couple of seasons to
seize the number one role but could never perform to the necessary
level. After giving the goalie away for a seventh round choice and a
bag of pucks to the Canucks, it leaves the Kings with two rookie
goalies, Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg and no veteran netminders in
the organization (their Manchester AHL affiliate houses former first
round pick Jonathan Bernier and up and comer Jeff Zatkoff).
Coach Terry Murray didn’t seem that
concerned about have two rookies with less than 50 games of NHL
experience leveraging the team’s success but it’s virgin territory for
"No, I never have," he said. "It's
unique for me, but it's not unprecedented, I don't think. I haven't
researched it. It's just a decision that we've made, within the
organization that we're going to play our young players. That decision
was made clearly back at the end of the season last year that a lot of
the young players in the organization were going to be put in
situations where they can have an opportunity to grow and take over
the ownership of the hockey club.
"It's the same now with these two
goaltenders. It's going to be very demanding, and that's why it's
going to take both of them to support each other emotionally and push
each other to accelerate and develop their games to a higher level."
And while it’s a lot to ask for two
youngsters, they seem to take it in stride. Ersberg, is a quiet 26
year old undrafted Swede who looks 18 and Quick is a 22 year old who
attended the University of Massachusetts and was a third round choice
in the 2005 draft. Quick has performed exceptionally over the past two
weeks, registering two shutouts and a save percentage of .943 after a
2-1 shootout win against Philadelphia this past Saturday. Quick turned
the trick in front of a raucous sellout of crowd and the reason why he
played un-rookie like could be due to his attitude.
When asked if he was nervous playing
against a top team like the Flyers in front of 18,000 plus, Quick
calmly said, "I haven’t been nervous playing hockey since I was ten
Is that so, young Mr. Quick?
"Yeah, you play so many games, this is
just another one."
Are those people that are belly aching
that Ovechkin isn’t starting the All Star Game the same ones that
complain the game doesn’t mean anything and how it’s played at half
First big name to be dealt: Doug Weight,
current Islanders leading scorer.
STOP THE BUZZ
With that clown, Sean Avery finally getting just deserts, there was
some buzz coming out of New York that the Rangers could use Mr.
Seconds alleged toughness to a roster that is devoid of grittiness.
While that’s true, such logic would have Rangers’ GM/President Glen
Sather looking up Theo Fleury, Chris Simon and Marty McSorley too. The
moral of the story is that in any sport, character wins. Break down
the numbers, the Rangers were 23-14-3 as they entered 2009 without
Avery and the Stars are 7-5-1 and back in the Western Conference
playoff race. If the Rangers want toughness and skill, Sather should
ring up Brendan Shanahan. Case closed.
Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL
Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist