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Could Coyotes Howl North of Toronto?

April 21, 2012, 12:49 PM ET [19 Comments]
Howard Berger
Toronto Maple Leafs Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
GLENDALE, Ariz. (Apr. 21) – I’m back in the desert for the first time since a trip with the Maple Leafs a year ago January, but I’m not expecting to travel here beyond the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. A victory over Chicago at Jobing.com Arena tonight will lift the Phoenix Coyotes into the Western Conference semifinals, joining the first team to advance this spring – Nashville – which eliminated Detroit on Friday. The joint here will be hopping, with fans creating the “white-out” that originated in the Coyotes first home [Winnipeg] during the 1990s; virtually all spectators in the building will don white T-shirts while screaming their lungs off… and nary a seat will be vacant.

But, once the cheering stops – even if that occurs after the Stanley Cup final – the Coyotes are all-but certain to pack up and re-locate after a 16-year term in the greater Phoenix area.

As you might imagine, this will be a little different than the NHL losing Atlanta – a place I happened to enjoy, but one that was mostly abhorred by colleagues in the media. No reporter (or leisure traveler) has ever spoken unfavorably about Arizona, particularly those that contend with winter conditions up north. There are few journeys more exhilarating than a December or January escape from southern-Ontario to the southwestern United States, where clouds are scarce and temperatures hover beyond 70 degrees F during the day.

This time of year isn’t ideal, as the thermometer in my rental-car registered 101 F yesterday during the 20-minute drive here from Sky Harbor International Airport [Glendale is located roughly 10 miles west of downtown Phoenix]. I’ve also spent time in this city in July, when the mercury soars close to 120 F and the night-time “low” dips to 105 – generating the most spectacular heat-lightning you’ll ever see. But, mid-winter here is Paradise.

The question, of course, on everyone’s mind is: What happens to the Coyotes once they pull stakes? There appeared to be a consensus in recent weeks that Quebec City would land the club and house it at the ancient Colisee while a new arena is being built in the provincial capital. That still may be the leading scenario. But, the proposed 19,500-seat arena in Markham, Ont. – northeast of Toronto – could open a door for the much-rumored second team in the GTA. The NHL; the Maple Leafs, courts of law in Ontario, and whichever God you believe in may have to unite before the complicated arrival of such an entity. Many hockey observers are convinced, however, that the Toronto region – so rich in capital and hockey fervor – is bound to attract another NHL franchise; perhaps that team will be the Coyotes.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Leafs would move heaven and earth to prevent such competition for the sports dollar – and debate has often raged over the territorial “veto” Leafs’ ownership claims to occupy. But, the hockey-business landscape is about to change in unprecedented fashion around Toronto, with Canada’s two communications giants – Bell and Rogers – co-investing in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Wouldn’t a second GTA club capable of filling “content across all platforms” (as the media moguls like to say) be rather attractive to the new Leaf owners – particularly if that club had to fork over an exorbitant rental fee to use the Air Canada Centre for the better part of three seasons (on top of the amount charged to indemnify the Leafs for territorial invasion)? New ownership would be able to pay off the Bay St. Beast a hell of a lot quicker with such a revenue influx.

This line of chatter is purely speculative, as the Gary Bettman regime has repeatedly offered its preference to avoid franchise re-location. The difference here, of course, is that the NHL owns the cash-draining Coyotes and might be rather exultant over the prospect of real money-men grabbing the club and placing it in a hockey-rich environment. Fronting the proposed Markham arena are a couple of internationally-recognized entrepreneurs: Toronto land-developer Rudy Bratty, and Graeme Roustan, chairman of the Bauer brand of hockey equipment. Bratty’s personal fortune is estimated at close to $1 billion and he already owns the land west of Kennedy Rd. and north of Highway 407 on which the arena would be built. That has to sound infinitely more appealing to Bettman and Co. than the annual skirmish with municipal leaders here in Glendale and the Coyotes tepid following in non-playoff months. The Commish and his lieutenants would welcome a little peace-of-mind.

In the meantime, hockey in the desert will be all-the-rage tonight, as the Coyotes and Blackhawks resume the most intriguing first-round series – all four games, thus far, having been decided in overtime with the typical (and potentially turbulent) back-drop of the Raffi Torres – Marian Hossa train-wreck. NHL warden Brendan Shanahan stoked the fire by leveling Torres with a 25-game suspension this morning.


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