I'm going to take a brief moment right now to do something I don't ordinarily do in my hockey-related musings: Give NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman some of the props he deserves. No, I don't mean that in an ironic or cynical manner, either. The fact is, for everything that's been going wrong with the NHL since Bettman took over, the man has managed to truly grow the sport in ways none of the fans ever expected, create a lot of new fans, and make hockey a reliable sport in places we never thought it could flourish. California has three teams, none of which are in any danger of leaving. The Dallas Stars are apparently running some sort of development program for kids which created interest, and whereas Raleigh, North Carolina had no skating rinks before the arrival of the Carolina Hurricanes, the city now has six. Whether or not that's because of people taking real interest or because of nostalgic transplants from cold-weather cities, I'm not sure. But the fact that Bettman was able to put a nationalized, widely-publicized hockey game called the Winter Classic up against the college football games of New Year's Day and make it thrive means hockey is no longer seen as a renegade sport for people with non-mainstream interest.
Okay, now that I've noted that, on to the obvious question: Even with the growth of hockey, what ever made him think the NHL could thrive in the desert? A desert in which the people are barely even registering the NFL team which also lives out there? Phoenix, Arizona is not anyone's first definition of a traditional hockey market, and the fans there have proven that repeatedly. Here we have a team that can't seem to get it together either on or off the ice. The Phoenix Coyotes have been one of the NHL's poster boys for the whole-the-hell-are-they? teams, the teams that no one follows, cares about, and seems in constant danger.
It wasn't always like that for the Coyotes. They were formed in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1972. Not as an NHL team, though - apparently hockey-hungry Winnipeg just wasn't good enough for the elitist suits running shit in the NHL. The NHL had recently expanded to 16 teams at the time. The problem was, in those rounds of expansions - 1967 creating the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, and St. Louis Blues; 1969 bringing in the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres; and 1972 introducing the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders - only created ONE team in Canada! (Meaning that yes, the NHL was always this fucking stupid.) As you can imagine, Canada wasn't pleased, and a couple of opportunistic American businessmen - Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, who had previously founded and run the American Basketball Association - teamed up with Bill Hunter, president of the junior Western Canada Hockey League, to see if they could get hazard pay outta some pissed off Canadian cities who felt a little jilted. They went and formed the World Hockey Association, bringing teams to Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City, and Ottawa. The WHA was set up to challenge the supremacy of the NHL, giving the senior league its first major competition since the Western Hockey League collapsed in 1926.
The WHA was pretty open about the fact that it was ditching the hated reserve clause, and that allowed the league to roam around raiding the NHL's best and brightest. Meanwhile, a certain team in the NHL which shall remain nameless (hint: It rhymes with "Schmicago Schlackshawks") was being run by a man named Bill Wirtz, a frugal owner who wasn't paying his preeminent stars what they were worth. This royally pissed off a player named Bobby Hull, which wouldn't have meant a whole lot if Hull wasn't, you know, the greatest player in this team's history and one of the greatest players in NHL history. Hull ditched his old team (The Blackhawks, alright? They were the Chicago Blackhawks) to jump aboard the WHA and the Winnipeg Jets. Once the Jets were done raiding the NHL, they then pioneered a whole new way of looking for the cream of the crop of hockey talent: Checking out the best players in Europe. That found them a couple of linemates for Hull with Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. It also made the Jets the premier team of the WHA. The WHA lasted for seven years before merging with the NHL. The Jets played in the Finals in a whopping FIVE of those years, winning them three times.
In 1979, most of the teams in the WHA folded while the Jets, Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, and Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL. Of course the senior NHL, being the NHL, was a complete dick about the merger and forced the n00bs to pay a heavy price for entry into the league. The NHL threw a big initiation party for the WHA teams in the form of something called the reclamation draft. It cost them three of their top six scorers, and in the regular draft, they had to draft 18th out of 21 teams. One of the players they protected in the reclamation draft was a defenseman named Scott Campbell, who showed a lot of promise but also suffered from a chronic asthma which was exacerbated by Winnipeg's nasty weather. He was out of the league completely in 1982.
Setting off their place as an NHL team, the Jets immediately paid their dues. Their first couple of years were wretched. In 1981, they won all of nine games. There was a bright spot in the suffering, though, with draft picks. In 1980, they drafted Dave Babych second overall. The next year they drafted Dale Hawerchuk first overall. With them being keystones of a strong nucleus, the Jets were restored to respectability quickly, but they were also hit with a hell of a dire misfortune: They were stuck in the same division as the Oilers and Calgary Flames. Back then, the league and playoffs were set up in a way which pretty much guaranteed the path to the Campbell Conference Finals would take them through one of those cities. Knowing that, I don't think I have to elaborate very much on the Jets' fate in the playoffs. In the 1985 season, they finished with a record better than every other team in the league except three. They accumulated 96 points, the best they would ever do in Winnipeg. And while they were actually able to beat the Flames in the first round of the playoffs, they were swept by Edmonton in the following round. Between 1983 and 1990, the Jets and Oilers faced each other in the playoffs six times, and Edmonton won every matchup. Just to rub it in, the Jets only won four total games in those six series. The Jets were just destined to languish in the playoffs back then. They only won two playoff series through the 80's - the one I previously mentioned in 1985, and a second in 1987, where they beat Calgary again (only to lose to Edmonton in the second round again).
Time to give Gary Bettman a bit more credit: During his commissionership, player salaries started to go up to the point where they were comparable to the salaries of players in other popular sports. What that meant for the teams was that operating costs were also rising. Meanwhile, the value of the Canadian dollar was going down. This started smacking the Canadian teams like a rented mule, because while they collected revenue in Canadian dollars, they had to pay salaries in American dollars. On the ice, the Jets' win totals also started going down. In 1990, they traded Dale Hawerchuk, their star and Captain, to the Buffalo Sabres. They began missing the playoffs with regularity, and even on the occasions they were able to sneak in, they kept losing in the first round. The fans were troopers about it; the Jets had a very loyal following, but there were questions about whether Winnipeg was big enough to support them. Their home building was also one of the worse arenas in the league; it was an aging barn with views so bad, they obstructed the luxury suite views…. Or at least they WOULD have obstructed the luxury suite views, had there been any luxury suites!
Various people stepped in, drawing up every scheme they could think of to save the Jets. All the efforts by local businessmen fell through, so the Jets were sold to American businessmen Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke, who planned to move the Jets to Minnesota, where they were to fill in the void left by the recently-departed North Stars. That didn't go anywhere, and the two of them made an agreement with Phoenix businessman Jerry Colangelo to move the Jets to Phoenix. Off they were, while Winnipeg was left to accept a new minor league team called the Manitoba Moose for consolation. The NHL finally returned to Winnipeg in 2012, creating a new Winnipeg Jets team by heisting the Atlanta Thrashers.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, everyone apparently thought the name "Phoenix Jets" or "Arizona Jets" would sound stupid. So they threw a contest to come up with a new name, and thus the name "Coyotes" was created. To create a little bit of buzz, the 'Yotes signed one of the NHL's best and brightest: Jeremy Roenick, fresh off a starring stint in Chicago because they had an owner, Bill Wirtz, who was frugal and didn't want to pay him what he was worth. Roenick teamed up with such players as Keith Tkachuk, Shane Doan, Mike Gartner, and Nikolai Khabibulin to lead the 'Yotes to a stretch of six seasons where they finished at .500 or better, making the playoffs every year but one. And the one year they didn't get that far, they managed to post 90 points, which made them the first team to post 90 points and miss the playoffs. Unfortunately, they still couldn't make it through the first round. The best they could do was the 1999 playoffs, where they built a 3-1 series lead which they proceeded to squander to the Blues. They fell in overtime in the seventh game.
There was another problem that cropped up: During the team's first eight years in Phoenix, their arena, America West Arena, was absolutely state of the art!…. For the NBA's Phoenix Suns, whom - it should be properly stressed - the place was built for. Now, if you've seen hockey and basketball arenas, you'll note there's a bit of a size difference, and America West Arena wasn't built with a hockey team in mind. The floor was barely large enough for a standard NHL rink, and so the team had to quickly re-engineer the joint to accommodate a 200-footer. As a result, there were parts of the upper deck that were actually sticking out over the rink! Therefore, capacity had to be cut after the first season, and a new arena was built in suburban Glendale.
In 1998, the team was sold and one of the people who became a part owner was Wayne Gretzky, recently retired and looking for the next big thing. Unfortunately, he got on at the worst possible time. For one thing, the Coyotes were back to stinking up the league again. For most of the millennium, they were barely competitive. Since a good team is important to attract fans who might otherwise not have any interest, attendance also started to drop in a way that was seriously worrying to the league. The team also had a downright shitty lease with Phoenix, which resulted in massive financial losses which they still haven't really recovered from. To try to give the team a shot in the arm, the Coyotes signed Brett Hull (Bobby's boy). Two days later came one of the ultimate embarrassments in hockey: Wayne Gretzky hired himself as coach, despite having never coached before, at any level, unless you count his kid's little league team. Five games after the season began, Hull had recorded all of one assist, and decided he wasn't capable of playing anymore. Just like that, he retired. Gretzky stepped down in 2009.
The on-ice product since then has been sorted out. Dave Tippett took over as coach in 2009 and he's turned them into a real, honest to god force. In his first season, he got them across the 50-win barrier for the first time, ever. In 2012, he brought them to the brink, getting them to the conference finals for their first time, ever. Things are looking up for the Coyotes right now on the ice. Off the ice, though, it's a much different story. The Coyotes declared bankruptcy in 2009, and the NHL has been running the team itself ever since. The NHL was planning to present the former owner, Jerry Moyes, with an offer to sell the Coyotes to Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns MLB's Chicago White Sox and the NBA's Chicago Bulls. But hours before he could, Moyes put the team in bankruptcy with the intent to sell it to Jim Balsillie, who intended to move them to Hamilton, Ontario. Now, Balsillie is obsessed with getting the NHL to Hamilton. Unfortunately for him, the league won't let him do it because the overarching broadcast area runs through that of two teams: The Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. Buffalo and Toronto are 90 minutes away from each other by car, and if you drive from one to the other, Hamilton is smack at the halfway point. The NHL had blocked his ownership bids twice before, once with the Pittsburgh Penguins, then again with the Nashville Predators, and in 2011 an unnamed bidder who fit his description made a massive bid on the Sabres themselves. But I digress. The NHL is currently pending a sale of the Coyotes to former San Jose Sharks owner Greg Jamison, after other bids fell through. The current deal with Jamison was delayed because he can't reach an agreement with the league.
The Phoenix Coyotes are very deferential to their past as the Winnipeg Jets. It's seen in their list of retired numbers: Keith Tkachuk, Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Sheen, Teppo Numminen, and Jeremy Roenick. Of those players, only Roenick played for them exclusively in a Coyotes jersey. Unfortunately, this team isn't exactly swimming in All-Star talent. Brett Hull and Mike Gartner played for them at the absolute ends of their careers - Gartner was there for a year before retiring, and Hull played all of five games for them. Shane Doan is their face, their Captain, and the only player on the team now who goes all the way back to Winnipeg. He's a career Jet/Coyote, something which can't be claimed by a ton of players.
The Coyotes are a western team, so their games and rivalries tend to not get as much airplay as a lot of others. I guess the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are there as far as rivalries go, but they're not rivalries a lot of NHL followers seem to take seriously. Back in Winnipeg, the Jets had those playoff series with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, but those are long gone, and the Coyotes are also disadvantaged by the fact that they're usually pretty bad. The fans the Coyotes do have seem to be more concerned about ownership than getting themselves up for a hard fight against a team from southern California, and it's tough to blame them at this junction.
The Coyotes really don't have a very good identity to hinge on. When they arrived in Phoenix, they were identified primarily by horrid sweater designs which exemplified all the worst aspects of 90's marketing hubris. Cartoons, color complexity, and a design meant to come off as in your face. The sweater logo looked like a hockey-playing Picasso coyote. Their designs now are a lot more simplified and a lot better, with the sweater logo being the head of a howling coyote and the color scheme having a dominant sedona red with sand-colored accents. And those old shirts are actually the best part of their identity. What really sucks about being a 'Yotes fan now is that the team is identified as clearly being one of the most unstable in the NHL. Until last year's conference final run, everything we heard in regards to the Coyotes was: Have they been sold? Who is buying them? They haven't moved yet? Where are they going to move? Why aren't they moving now? You can forgive born and bred Phoenix hockey fans for cheering for some other team, because this chatter isn't the kind that causes confidence in a fanbase. If they DO cheer for the Coyotes, in fact, they have a lot of courage in sticking to them. If they don't, you can't blame them, because they probably don't want to emotionally commit too much to a team which may not be around very much longer.
I think it says everything about the Phoenix Coyotes that most NHL onlookers seem to care about the team's finances than its recent performance surge. If you're a fan of the Coyotes, well, no matter how lowly I grade a team, I have always stressed the importance of not letting my grading discourage adopting fans. What I haven't done is give out the advice I'm going to right now: Abandon ship. If you don't, godspeed to you all.