Can magic season save Coyotes?

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Phoenix's improbable run to the playoffs has helped the club shed its image as a perennial doormat, but the Coyotes still haven't been able to shake the cellar-dweller tag when it comes to attendance.

Despite clinching its first playoff spot since 2002 and eclipsing the franchise record for points in a season, fans have not exactly been crashing the gates to get into Arena. In fact, through 39 home games, the Coyotes are dead last in NHL attendance, drawing a pitiful average of 11,725 fans a night.

Considering the surprisingly successful season the club is putting together, this perceived lack of interest is not exactly the best news for the NHL, which purchased the Coyotes in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year and has been trying to find a buyer willing to keep the team in Glendale.

The NHL's Phoenix franchise has long been ridiculed by purists as a dead end for professional hockey and, despite the team's superb play on the ice this year, it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a case for the Coyotes staying in the Southwest.

The Coyotes came into the 2009-10 season with about as much bad press as a team could possibly garner, and it's no surprise that the club has faced an uphill battle in winning over fans.

All summer long, the Coyotes were in and out of court as the NHL battled Jim Balsillie in a showdown to keep the team in Arizona. Balsillie, a Canadian billionaire, wanted to purchase the Coyotes and move them to southern Ontario, but the league eventually won the legal showdown, taking over the troubled franchise in October for $140 million.

Dave Tippett is a favorite to win the Jack Adams Award.
Adding to the offseason tension, Wayne Gretzky stepped down as the team's head coach on September 24 -- just over a week before the start of the season. Gretzky, who was part-owner of the club prior to the sale, cited the team's uncertain future as a reason for his resignation.

As it turns out, the Great One's departure may have been a blessing for the Coyotes, who were then able to hire Dave Tippett as bench boss. Tippett is now a heavy favorite to win the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach. Gretzky, meanwhile, has been left to watch the team's success from afar, and ponder a dismal tenure as Coyotes' head coach that produced four straight years out of the playoffs.

Like Gretzky, the fans were also uncertain about the Coyotes, and largely stayed away from games at Arena. After drawing 17,532 fans in the home opener, Phoenix saw just 6,899 faces in the crowd for its second home game of the season. The trend continued in that direction throughout the earlier part of the year, and perhaps the lack of pressure has spurred the Coyotes to the franchise's first-ever 100-point season.

Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, local interest in Phoenix's hockey club has increased dramatically. The Coyotes drew over 17,000 fans to each of their last two home games after reporting an average attendance of 13,414 in their previous four tests in the desert.

While the late-season attendance surge is promising heading into the playoffs, it is unlikely to alter the Coyotes' future in Phoenix. The club has never turned a profit since moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix following the 1995-96 campaign, and it seems highly unlikely that they will end this season in the black, barring a lucrative run to the Stanley Cup finals.

Perhaps if the Coyotes had been setting attendance records earlier this year, the NHL would have found a buyer willing to keep the team in Arizona, but there just doesn't seem to be anyone ready to take that risk.

Recent reports revealed that in the NHL's anticipation that it will not find an owner willing to keep the team in Glendale, the league already has a deal to sell the team to Toronto billionaire David Thomson, who would then work to move the club back to Winnipeg.

Of course, the league has denied that any such deal exists, but the NHL won't wait forever to find a buyer willing to rescue Phoenix's hockey franchise. It doesn't want to hold ownership of the Coyotes any longer than it has to, so if the Coyotes' savior is going to arrive, they better step up soon.

If this were a Hollywood movie, Phoenix could save its team by winning the Stanley Cup title, but even a storybook ending may not be enough to deliver the Coyotes from their fate.

There has been simply too much evidence that an NHL franchise in Phoenix is simply not viable. That's a tough pill to swallow for the tiny few who identify themselves as die-hard fans of the Coyotes, but it appears to be the truth.

The Coyotes players and coaches have done an excellent job of pulling together in the face of daunting odds. In the end, all they can win is a championship and not, it seems, the hearts of Phoenix sports fans.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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