DENVER — So I was checking the NHL’s home attendance numbers the other day, fully expecting to see the Phoenix Coyotes somewhere toward the middle of the list of the 30 teams. Because, of course, we were all told so many times by Arizonans in recent years that “Hey, give us stable ownership, give us a reason to come out without feeling like we’ll be seeing moving trucks right after the game, and we’ll PROVE to the world we’re a hockey market!”
To much pomp and circumstance, the Coyotes got their stable new ownership group this summer. Finally, the Coyotes were no longer the equivalent of Oliver Twist under the arm of Mr. Bumble, singing “One boy, boy for sale, he’s going cheap, only seven guineas!”
The NHL’s foster kid no more, the Coyotes were finally stable and lovingly owned by the Canadian group headed by George Gosbee. Fans could now safely come back to Jobing.com Arena, assured that their loyalty had paid off with the signature of Gosbee’s pen.
And there it was: 12,864—the average attendance for the Coyotes’ first 13 home dates, last in the league. That average so far, in fact, is more than 1,000 fans fewer than last year’s average, in 24 lockout-shortened home dates, of 13,923.
What’s going on here? It’s not like ownership has been complacent since acquiring the team from the NHL, in a sales process only slightly less arduous than a hike up Everest. Gosbee has been front and center promoting the team and offering generous early-season discounts on tickets (lots of $15 upper-bowl seats can be had).
The team is still winning too, under longtime coach Dave Tippett. After beating the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 Tuesday night in Denver—without injured captain Shane Doan and starting goalie Mike Smith—the Coyotes’ record stood at 17-8-5 and 39 points (which would put them in fourth overall in the Eastern Conference but still had them only ninth in the rugged West).
I went searching for answers to the question of why attendance is still down in Glendale in the visitors’ dressing room. That’s probably not the best place, but a guy has to start somewhere.
The consensus of those in the Coyotes’ room: Give it some more time.
"You have that much turmoil for that long, you’ve got to earn the right for your fans to come back,” Tippett told Bleacher Report. “I believe if you have a good product and can win, you’re going to get people back in the building."
There’s where Tippett could get really mad if he wanted. He’s made the Coyotes winners for several years now, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals two years ago. Still, Phoenix was 29th in attendance last season, last overall in 2011-12, 29th the year before that, last again the year before that and…you get the point. The last time Phoenix finished any higher than 25th overall in NHL home attendance, in fact, was 2006-07, when their 14,988 a game placed 24th.
But it’s tough to honestly dump on Arizonans too much. First off, everyone knows what a screw-up it was to move the team to Glendale, a suburb far off the grid and one battered by the U.S. housing bust of a few years ago. Moneyed Scottsdale was supposed to be the relocation place of the team after starting out in downtown Phoenix’s America West Arena, but when former owners Jerry Moyes and Steve Ellman ran the team into the ground through a colossus of mismanagement, so did the yellow brick road planned move to Scottsdale.
When the NHL took control of the team in 2009, that started four years of one bungled sale after another (anyone recall names such as Jim Balsille, Jerry Reinsdorf, Greg Jamison and Matt Hulsizer?), along with one relocation rumor after another. Quebec City, Kansas City, Seattle, Markham, Ontario—you name it, the Coyotes were one day away from moving to all of those places if reports were to be believed.
Everybody grew beyond tired of the stories. Everybody that is, except Gary Bettman, who showed incredible patience in finding real buyers to keep the team in Glendale. Everybody should have an advocate like Bettman, who trudged to all those Glendale City Council meetings and kept a hostile hockey press at bay until Gosbee and his group’s checks finally cleared.
But now it really is time for Arizonans to prove the Coyotes really did matter to them all along. Now, there really are no more excuses. It’s a winning team with stable ownership, and, yeah, Glendale is a long drive from downtown Phoenix, but not that long and Jobing.com Arena is very nice once you’re there.
If the Coyotes are still 30th in the league in attendance by the end of the season, there will be some very embarrassed and rightly angry people among the many whose tireless work and patience kept the team there.
All the “Hockey doesn’t belong in Phoenix and never did” trolls will only magnify if that happens.
Radim Vrbata, who has been a Coyote since 2009 and is one of the NHL’s most unnoticed goal scorers, has true faith the fans will finally start showing up soon.
“Since training camp, there has been a more positive feeling with us, that there is finally someone behind us,” Vrbata told Bleacher Report. “I think if we hadn’t had the lockout right after we went to the conference finals two years ago, we would have had a better time getting the fans back. But then the ownership situation still wasn’t settled. That hurt our momentum, so we have to build it from zero again. But it’s still so early in Phoenix. Once the winter comes and more people come to Arizona, I think the attendance will go higher.”
Tippett knows there will be nobody else to blame it on if it doesn’t.
“We always thought we were a good organization,” Tippett said. “Now we have to prove we are a good organization.”