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In Defense of Gary Bettman as the Coyotes Come To Town

November 8, 2022, 12:15 AM ET [1376 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so there’s the picture and now for a thousand words.

The Arizona Coyotes are straight-up dumpster juice and they’re bringing their distinct brand of putrid hockey to Buffalo tomorrow night. Look, the Sabres have been the joke of the NHL for a long time, so it’s hard to throw stones in glass houses, but the state of the Coyotes franchise transcends team futility and is now embarrassing the league at large – due not only to their awful on-ice performance – but also because of their arena conditions. Here is the visiting team locker room from Mullet Arena at Arizona State University:

To be fair, the Coyotes are building an annex next to the arena which will house the locker room facilities, and that facility will be ready for the Coyotes’ next homestand after the Desert Dogs wrap up a 14-game road trip on December 7. It’s still a brutal look for the league to have the Coyotes playing in a college rink that houses 5,000 spectators, and this situation is looking less-and-less like a short-term solution. Craig Morgan of gophoenix.com sums up the future of a new arena for the Coyotes in a way that sounds more like a hopeful possibility than a sure thing.

Coyotes president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez told reporters on Thursday that the Tempe City Council will vote on the team’s proposed arena and entertainment district on Nov. 29, but sources told PHNX that the council is also likely to refer the proposal to referendum in November, leaving the vote in the hands of Tempe citizens.

While the vote on Nov. 29 will provide clarity on council’s opinion of the Coyotes’ proposal — on the entitlements and on the general plan amendment — a referendum would be the ultimate vote in determining whether the project begins. That vote would be held in 2023 at a date yet to be determined.

There is also the potential for litigation from any number of parties, including Sky Harbor International Airport, the City of Phoenix, the Goldwater Institute or local citizens groups.

It certainly sounds like the Coyotes won’t get a shovel into the ground on their proposed $1.7 BILLION arena/entertainment complex until a referendum can be held at some undecided point in 2023 at which point taxpayers will decide whether they want to continue to subsidize the Coyotes’ existence. That figures to be a tough sell considering the arid climate of Arizona and their lack of support for the Coyotes franchise. It’s incredible to think that more than 25 years after the franchise was relocated from Winnipeg, and after a decade-plus of arena drama and relocation rumors, this franchise still exists in the desert of Arizona.

The excellent Kachina jersey is perhaps the best explanation as to how this experiment has been allowed to continue.

Gary Bettman, for better or worse, has staked his legacy on the southern expansion strategy of the 1990s, with teams like the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers and (the team formerly known as) the Phoenix Coyotes all coming into existence following the rollerblading/Mighty Ducks craze during the last decade of the previous century. Some of those decisions have been massive successes as cities like Nashville and Tampa have become unlikely hockey hotbeds. Sustained relevance and outright success have certainly helped the Preds and Lightning to maintain their foothold in non-traditional markets.

Atlanta and Phoenix meanwhile haven’t panned out as well, and that no doubt has to do with the on-ice product as much as the non-traditional market location. The Thrashers, of course, left for the snow-covered prairies of Winnipeg after Atlanta failed to make the playoffs in the final four years of their existence. The Coyotes have been tanking as long as the Sabres have been, and the Coyotes famously missed out on both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel during the great Tankathon of 2015. That year’s contest between the Coyotes and the Sabres in Buffalo has gone down in modern lore as the game in which Sabres fandom sold its soul and began cheering for the Coyotes to beat the Sabres with the hope that the blue and gold would land either McDavid or Eichel.

Fans got their wish, although perhaps it was a monkey’s paw outcome in retrospect. The Sabres finished last, lost the lottery, drafted Eichel and then proceeded to be godawful for the entirety of his six-year stint in Buffalo. He is now gone and playing for another of Bettman’s unlikely teams: the Vegas Golden Knights. They’ll be here on Thursday with Eichel looking to avenge his mediocre performance during his first return to Buffalo last season.

Incredible how all of this ties back together with Eichel at the center of the picture.

Perhaps more accurately though, it all ties back to Gary Bettman. It should never be forgotten that it was the NHL – with Bettman at the helm – that saved the Sabres franchise from dissolution or relocation following the incarceration of John Rigas and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Buffalo Sabres. There was legitimate concern that the Sabres would be bought and sold to BlackBerry smartphone magnate Jim Balsillie who sought to relocate the team to Hamilton.

Instead, Bettman and the NHL stepped in and operated the franchise during the 2002-2003 season before they found a suitable buyer in the ownership group of Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn. Bettman saved the Sabres, and by extension, a major part of the soul of Western New York.

So before judging the situation in Arizona too harshly, perhaps it’s worth giving Bettman a little credit for his stubbornness; it saved the Buffalo Sabres.
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