The view from Suite 1114 ...
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The view from Suite 1114 offers a panoramic view of Jobing.com Arena, taking in everything from the empty to the scrappy to the hopeful.
Inside this box on a Saturday night in late January, a handful of men -- investment bankers/analysts and, yes, hockey fans -- are committing some $140 million to the scrappy Phoenix Coyotes and their belief that hockey can grow in the barren desert.
Someone in the box asks Ice Edge chairman Keith McCullough -- a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who played collegiate hockey at Yale -- how they'll know if the fans are into the game. He tells them: when they start to howl.
Then as if on cue, less than two minutes into the third period, defenseman Adrian Aucoin scores on the power play to give the Coyotes a 3-1 lead over the visiting Minnesota Wild. Suddenly the Coyote howl that accompanies all Phoenix goals via the arena's sound system is matched by the howling of the announced crowd of 12,631.
Given the tattered state of the franchise, given the grinder through which it's been put in the past year, everything is relative.
The announced crowd for this game reinforces the Coyotes' standing as the worst-attended team in the 30-team NHL. Still, it is more than the team's average announced attendance thus far this season, and given that the NFL's Cardinals were playing at the same moment against New Orleans in a divisional playoff game in Louisiana, the crowd is fairly impressive.
"I'm pretty enthusiastic," CEO Anthony LeBlanc told ESPN.com over breakfast the next morning.
LeBlanc, like his business partner McCullough, is from Thunder Bay, although they didn't know each other until relatively recently. They were initially thrown together as part of a preliminary discussion to bring major junior hockey to their home town.
When the Coyotes filed for bankruptcy last spring, the two men and a number of their partners began examining the team's financial situation with an eye on taking a run at the troubled Coyotes.
What their analysts saw encouraged the Ice Edge group to move forward. After BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie was denied in his bid to buy the team out of bankruptcy with a plan to move the Coyotes to Hamilton, the NHL bought the team for $140 million. Last month -- with other potential buyers, including Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, out of the picture -- the Ice Edge group signed a letter of intent to buy the team.
The announcement was greeted with more than a little skepticism.
Officials with teams throughout the NHL wondered not so quietly how the group was going to afford to buy the team and make it flourish in a city where there had been nothing but disaster.
The men in Suite 1114 remain partly amused by the skepticism, partly resigned to it. What they don't seem to be is worried about it.
"It's like buying a house that you love and that you know is beautiful," McCullough said. "You don't give a damn what people think. I have a tremendous amount of confidence that we can build something we can be proud of. We're not afraid to tell people what's going on."
One of the curious elements of the Ice Edge bid -- curious to those on the outside, at least -- was the group's decision not to include any kind of out clause or a demand of a reduction in the remaining 26 years of the lease with the City of Glendale. But as LeBlanc pointed out, you don't buy a McDonald's or any other kind of business looking for an out clause.
At the heart of their decision not to look for ways out of Phoenix was an understanding of what it means to be a fan. Being a fan means making both an emotional and financial commitment to a team. To repair the significant damage done with local fans, the ownership group had to prove they were committed -- not just to buying the team, but also to making it work here.
"To make the commitment to the team, you have know the team's going to be here," LeBlanc said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman agreed. To have asked for an out clause, "you're setting yourself up to fail," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview.
Emotion and good intentions are one thing, but Ice Edge officials insist they didn't make an offer to buy the team hoping it will work out. The group has gone over the financials and believes there is a future for this team in Arizona, provided the local economy turns around at some point in the future.
"That's the thing that people don't understand," LeBlanc said. "We went in and looked at it as a business."
Both McCullough and LeBlanc describe the situation with the franchise as dire.
"I have never seen a more dysfunctional business," McCullough said.
"It is a distressed asset right now," LeBlanc said.
Which explains how they were able to make an offer for the rather modest sum of $140 million.
"What's the worst thing that could happen? We've modeled the worst-case scenario, and I can assure you it was bad," McCullough said.
Bad is something the Coyotes know all about, on and off the ice. More than one person connected to the team has described what happened to the Coyotes as "the perfect storm" of self-destruction.
First, the team has been lousy. Since moving into Glendale in December 2003, the Coyotes have rewarded fans with zero playoff games. Then last spring the team was thrown into bankruptcy by former owner Jerry Moyes as part of a backroom deal to try to sell the team to Balsillie, whose plan was to overpay for the franchise and move it to Hamilton. The NHL blocked the bid, and the two sides spent the summer and early fall battling in court.
The impact on season-ticket sales, corporate sponsors and fan support was predictable. About half the team's season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors fled. The team became a laughingstock.
Directly above Suite 1114, Coyotes executive vice president and chief communications officer Jeff Holbrook stops by the press box and looks out on the same empty seats, the same collection of fans, and describes selling to them as "hand-to-hand combat."
Imagine, he says, someone from the Coyotes' sales staff having to personally call every single person in attendance at this game. That's what life has been like here. Holbrook -- who was with the Buffalo Sabres when money was so tight they didn't know whether they could buy pucks -- once told former coach Wayne Gretzky things couldn't possibly be worse in Phoenix.
He was wrong.
"It was a catastrophic situation," Holbrook said of the summer months.
Although there were marketing plans, ticket packages and advertising campaigns designed, they couldn't be implemented with the team in legal limbo. "It was almost an unmarketable product," Holbrook said.
One of the great mysteries about this market has been what would happen if the team actually delivered on the longstanding promise of getting better?
Since the team moved to Glendale, development has increased around the facility. There are bars and restaurants and upscale boutiques. Next door, the Arizona Cardinals built and moved into a new stadium and have played playoff games there in two straight seasons.
The Coyotes remain an unfulfilled promise on many levels.
"You can't keep promising year after year after year that you're on the right track," GM Don Maloney said. "We have to prove it on the ice."
Under the most extreme of circumstances, the Coyotes are doing just that. In defiance of skeptics who figured they would be at the bottom of the NHL standings, they were fourth in the Western Conference as of Friday morning. Unlike last season -- when a young Coyotes team played well in the first half before disappearing in the second -- Maloney believes this is a team that should stand up well to the pressures of making a playoff run.
"I think we're built for the last 20, 25 games," he said. "I think our culture is where we need it to be. I think we're built to get to the playoffs."
His players believe it, too. For most of the players in the room, "it's not their first rodeo," veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski explained. "When we hit a rough patch, they're not going to call 911."
And there is more than a little impetus for the players to prove people wrong.
"Everyone expected us to be giving away games," said Vernon Fiddler, a tough-nosed forward who came over from another franchise known for its fair share of financial woes in Nashville. "It does bring satisfaction [to be able to go out and compete with the best in the league]."
But if there's one thing the past eight or nine months have taught the folks in Phoenix, it's not to look too far down the road. Captain Shane Doan made the trip to the desert from Winnipeg in 1996. He looks forward to an ownership resolution and maybe reaching the playoffs again, but he is content to look only to tomorrow, and then to the tomorrow after that.
"We're pretty grounded here," he told ESPN.com. "The one thing I've learned is to be patient and wait and see what happens."
Call it "controlled enthusiasm." Making the playoffs would be a boon to new ownership, an unexpectedly positive jumping-off point to a new beginning for a beleaguered franchise.
McCullough, an investment analyst based in New Haven, Conn., has a staff of 35 and is developing a new paradigm for assessing talent and how much money should be paid for that talent under the salary cap. In theory, it's not all that different from the Oakland Athletics' "Moneyball" strategy
"It's a different way of looking at hockey," LeBlanc added.
Bettman said the situation in Phoenix has "stabilized," but won't get dramatically better until the sale is completed. He described the relationship between the Ice Edge group and the franchise as being "still in the courtship stage, waiting to make sure there's a long-term relationship."
Bettman was asked if he thought we'd be talking about the Coyotes in these "Will they make it?" terms in five to 10 years. The commissioner hoped the answer is no. "But I'm not the ultimate judge of that," he said.
The market is the judge, and in the coming days the market will render a verdict on whether the view revealed from Suite 1114 is a hopeful panorama or just another mirage.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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