Credit Gary Bettman, NHL Players Association, for Relative Peace
As independent agency rules liberalized and wages rose in the 1990s, the smaller NHL markets were squeezed to the point of suffocation. In towns where the owners were not particularly civic and / or local, the increasing losses resulted in quick escapades.
Keep in mind that Commissioner Gary Bettman serves at the pleasure of the Board of Governors (read: “billionaire owners”), and when he receives marching orders, he marches. At the start of his career, before having the cachet of acting more “in the best interests of the league”, he walked much faster.
The Minnesota North Stars had a happy footed owner with an arena problem and gallons of red ink. They moved to Dallas in 1993. It was foul play on one level – how could Minnesota not have a hockey team? – and it was corrected later by the expansion.
The Hartford Whalers had a cold-hearted absent owner who was determined to move the team as soon as he got his hands on it (Anthony Precourt Sr., if you will). They moved to Raleigh in 1997.
The Canadian small market teams had a particular problem. Players were paid in US dollars, which created a gap for teams whose income was in Canadian dollars. That was before the league came up with a Canadian aid plan.
The Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995. (The Avalanche quickly won the Stanley Cup).
The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. Twelve years later, Winnipeg was able to poach the Thrashers because Atlanta isn’t exactly a thriving hockey market. Also, the owners of Thrashers were suing each other, which didn’t help.
It’s been 25 years of drama in the desert. The Phoenix / Arizona Coyotes have had five different owners and / or ownership groups, including the NHL; the league put the team into receivership after one of the owners filed the team for bankruptcy in 2009.
The Coyotes have had an arena problem for a long time. They were originally housed in a downtown basketball arena. They wanted to build a resort in Scottsdale but the numbers didn’t work, not for Scottsdale. The solution was to build an arena and a shopping center around it, in a field in Glendale.
The dream was for hockey fans across the valley to take the highway loop to come for the games and stay for the outlet stores, or something. Sales taxes were the backbone of the plan. Did we mention that the owner bankrupted the team in 2009?
On Thursday, the City of Glendale announced that it will not renew the Coyotes lease beyond the 2021-22 season and tweeted that Gila River Arena, which it owns, will focus on “bigger events and more. impactful ”.
The team said all of their efforts are aimed at keeping the Coyotes in Arizona.
There had been talk of the Coyotes joining the state of Arizona and building a shared arena in Tempe, but the school withdrew. The Tempe arena project is not completely dead. Phoenix is another option. We’ll see what happens next month.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects are assembled. We’re talking about Houston, which felt an expansion before the league put a team in Seattle. Houston has an arena ready. Quebec too. The franchises available are a hot ticket. Even Hartford (via its mayor, Luke Bronin) is making noise.
“First of all, I don’t think the Coyotes franchise is going anywhere,” Bettman told New York radio station WFAN. “I think the town of Glendale is negotiating. It’s no secret that (Coyotes owner) Alex Meruelo is examining his options for building a new arena elsewhere. And I think the town of Glendale basically said to the Coyotes, “You have to sign a 20-year lease or we’re not going to renew it. ”
“I think they’re just negotiating. I don’t worry about the Coyotes. I think their future stays in the greater Phoenix area.
In the past, Bettman has said Glendale and its arena are no longer viable. This is probably partly the truth and partly the art of negotiation. He is a lawyer.
The Coyotes are a team with a lingering arena problem compounded by a history of messy management and poor decisions. In this century, such a franchise is an outlier.
Labor wars and collective bargaining brought revenue sharing to the NHL, and revenue sharing brought a stability that did not exist in the 1990s. This may be an overgeneralization, but there is has truth at the heart of it all.
It is to the credit of Bettman, now an established wrestler of billionaire owners, and the NHL Players Association, that has grown in strength.
There are bad commissioners (Don Garber, Rob Manfred, again Don Garber). Bettman is often pilloried, sometimes rightly so. Yet during 18 months of the pandemic and significant loss of earnings, he was able to extend the collective agreement and negotiate new television rights deals with ESPN and Turner.
In situations where there is potential for franchise relocation, the team to look for is the fan team. To Bettman’s credit, he has been and remains a strong supporter of the Coyote market and, by extension, their fan base. It’s almost like he’s trying to do the right thing.