Dust-up in the Phoenix desert - Macleans.ca

Dust-up in the Phoenix desert

Death threats, hate mail, conspiracy theories. Welcome to hockey night in Phoenix.

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Dust-up in the desert

Norm Hall/NHLI/Getty Images

The clock is ticking for the Phoenix Coyotes. Down 1-0 to the St. Louis Blues with less than three minutes left in the first period, the team is fiddling away a two-man advantage. The wingers are having trouble controlling the puck, and the one shot Keith Yandle manages from the point misses the net by a country mile. When a fumbled pass results in a short-handed rush for the Blues, the boos rain down in Jobing.com Arena. It’s surprisingly loud given the size of the crowd—10,977 tickets sold or given away, but at least a thousand fewer actual bums in the seats. On a Tuesday night in late March, matched up against a team bound for the golf course instead of the playoffs, hockey is a tough sell in Phoenix. Hand it to the fans who do show up, though—they’re as apt at expressing their displeasure as any in the game.

The chant that rises out of the upper bowl during the second period isn’t quite as lusty, but perhaps even more telling. “Goldwater sucks! Goldwater sucks!” NHL catcalls aren’t usually directed at libertarian think tanks. Then again, nothing about the saga of the Phoenix Coyotes is business as usual.

Since the spring of 2009, when former owner Jerry Moyes put the club into bankruptcy, there have been two failed efforts to sell the struggling team, and a messy legal battle with Jim Balsillie over the BlackBerry billionaire’s attempts to move it to Hamilton. Now a deal with a Chicago businessman to keep the Coyotes in place hangs in the balance, chilled by the philosophical objections—and potential legal action—of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative watchdog group. The NHL, which has been running the team and paying its bills for two full seasons, has almost exhausted its patience. “Time is running out. We’re coming to an end,” commissioner Gary Bettman warned last month. A rink and an ownership group led by David Thomson, the richest man in Canada, await in Winnipeg. Jets fans, who saw their team move to Arizona 15 years ago, can hardly contain their glee.

At issue is an agreement between the city of Glendale, Ariz., owners of Jobing.com Arena, and Matthew Hulsizer, the prospective Coyotes buyer, which would see the municipality pay him $100 million (all figures in US$) up front for on-site parking rights—raised through a bond issue—and a further $97 million to manage the rink over the next 5½ years. In turn, Hulsizer would use those funds to purchase the money-losing club for $210 million from the NHL, guaranteeing not to move it for at least 30 years. Over the life of the deal, which runs to 2041, the city estimates it will net more than $287 million from sources like arena usage fees, game-related sales tax and parking charges. But opponents dispute those predictions, noting that the total cost of the bonds alone is likely to range between $250 million and $340 million, once interest is factored in.

Dust-up in the desert

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The Goldwater Institute claims the agreement violates the state constitution. Under Arizona’s “gift clause,” governments are prohibited from providing grants, subsidies, or financing to private individuals or businesses if the cost clearly outweighs the direct public benefit. The think tank’s assertions have made it difficult for the municipality to find a market for the bonds, and are hotly disputed by Glendale, which says it has five legal opinions to the contrary. “We have taken 2½ years to structure a deal that we have made sure is in accordance with all the rules,” says Julie Frisoni, the city’s spokesperson. Hundreds of jobs, and what one study suggests are $500 million worth of indirect economic benefits, will be lost if the team moves back to Manitoba, she says. “The taxpayers Goldwater claims to represent are the same taxpayers who are going to be hurt.”

Four months into the fracas in Phoenix, tempers are fraying. There has been plentiful hate mail, and even some death threats. Dark conspiracy theories about who’s really backing Goldwater abound. The players are having trouble focusing. The team’s supporters despair. And in some quarters, Canadian media are about as welcome as the plague. Who knew that hockey could arouse such passion in the desert?

The parking lot at the Goldwater Institute’s headquarters, on a quiet side street in central Phoenix, offers a pretty good snapshot of who works inside. Take the Lexus SUV, with the AZLIBERTY vanity plate, and bumper sticker that spells out the President’s name as “One Big Ass Mistake America.” And should any political confusion persist, the lobby features both a large portrait and a bronze statue of its namesake, Barry, the late Arizona senator once dubbed “Mr. Conservative.”

Clint Bolick, Goldwater’s director of litigation, fits the profile. In 1991, he co-founded the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which bills itself as America’s “only libertarian public interest law firm.” After moving to Arizona a decade ago, he headed up a school choice group. In 2007, when Goldwater resolved to start pushing its vision via the courts, he jumped at the chance. “I decided that I hated running an organization, and that I missed suing bureaucrats,” says Bolick.

Arizona’s gift clause was one of their first weapons of choice. Enacted in 1912, it was considered a relic until four years ago, when Goldwater filed suit against the city of Phoenix over a $100-million tax rebate incentive for the builder of an upscale shopping mall. The watchdog group lost at trial, and then won on appeal. In early 2010, the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling, and put Arizona’s politicians on notice—subsidies had better result in tangible returns.

There’s nothing personal in this battle against the Coyotes, says Bolick, noting that his two kids are big fans of the team mascot, Howler; it’s just that the watchdog would rather see the team leave than have a new precedent set for the state’s taxpayers. “Basically, Glendale is doubling down on a very bad debt, gambling that a team that has never made money will become profitable with just a few tweaks.”

It’s a type of zealotry that’s proving difficult for the league, city, and Hulsizer to comprehend. When Bettman came to Phoenix in early March, he denounced the group as “obstructionist,” after his attempts to arrange a private meeting with the organization and its backers were rebuffed. Hulsizer, who recently sweetened the deal, guaranteeing the city at least $75 million in direct parking and arena revenue, has also thrown up his hands. “I have reached out to you on several occasions,” he wrote in an email to Darcy Olsen, Goldwater’s CEO, last month. “Why won’t you meet? You do know that you are preventing me from paying for losses that will otherwise be paid for by the Arizona taxpayers.” Glendale’s spokesperson, Frisoni, says it’s been almost four months since the group last agreed to sit down with the city, and says she has concluded that they have some sort of “ulterior motive.”

Speculating about Goldwater’s endgame has become a popular pastime in Phoenix. Much has been made about the presence of Randy Kendrick, wife of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken, on its board. (Her opposition to the deal has nothing to do with her husband, Kendrick told the Phoenix Business Journal in February. “I would never use my position on the board to benefit my husband’s business.”) Another theory suggests the anti-Coyote effort, which includes a recent “robocall” urging taxpayers to register their objections, is being underwritten by Winnipeg money. Not true, says Goldwater, which searched its records and found a single $100 donation from Canada. Although the controversy has apparently been good for the non-profit’s bottom line: in an interview with a Phoenix radio station, Darcy Olsen said the money is flowing. “Often with our issues like this, when they are in the press, we see a lot of donations come in. And that’s certainly the case now.”

Everyone involved now concedes that there are only a matter of weeks left to save the franchise, and considerable pressure is being brought to bear on Goldwater and its board. Hulsizer’s wife phoned Randy Kendrick at home a couple of weeks ago. Arizona’s former attorney general buttonholed Bolick at the health club they both attend. The Arizona Republic has now run five editorials calling on the institute to desist. Sen. John McCain has been making calls on the team’s behalf too. “It is to the greater good of the state of Arizona that the Coyotes remain here,” the 2008 presidential candidate said in a TV interview at the recent game against Chicago.

The watchdog group says it won’t buckle, but all the attention is proving to be a little more than it bargained for. After Bettman called Goldwater out at his Phoenix press conference, Darcy Olsen and others at the institute received email and telephone death threats. One caller even vowed to kill himself on their lawn if the team left town. Goldwater hired armed security guards to stand outside the building for a couple of weeks. “That’s the first time anything like that has ever happened in my career,” Bolick says quietly.

In the corridor outside the Coyotes’ dressing room, Shane Doan’s son and a friend are playing ball hockey with real NHLers’ sticks. The Phoenix captain’s 12-year-old daughter lingers at the doorway, waiting for her dad to finish chatting with a reporter. In his 15th season, the 34-year-old winger is the franchise’s last on-ice link to Winnipeg, having played 74 games for the Jets as a rookie in 1995-96. That summer, he moved with the team. Now he makes no bones about his preference to play out the rest of his career under the warm winter sun.

“Winnipeg gave me my chance to play in the NHL. I fulfilled my dream. There’s obviously a lot of appreciation for that,” says Doan. “But this has become home. You’re so close to the people that support the team, not just the fans, but the security guards, the PR people, the training staff. These are my friends that are faced with losing their jobs.”

Dust-up in the desert

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Sitting in the stands watching practice a little earlier, Don Maloney, the Phoenix GM, rattles off a list of the veteran players he’s been able to sign, due, at least in part, to Arizona’s charms: Ray Whitney, Adrian Aucoin Lee Stempniak, Derek Morris. “We were able to get some good deals because this is a really good place to play for the families,” he says. Even having 13 Canadians on the roster won’t guarantee much enthusiasm for a Manitoba winter. Maloney, who won the NHL’s first-ever GM of the Year award last season for shaping a team that earned 107 points despite the off-ice turmoil, says a move to Winnipeg would make his job a lot harder. “That’s a known fact. That’s what Edmonton faces. Nobody hides that.” And like the NHL schedule makers, he’s already working on dual plans for next season. One involves resigning some of the team’s unrestricted free agents—eight contracts, including star netminder Ilya Bryzgalov’s, expire at the end of June—and adding some vets. The other calls for a youth-heavy rebuild in a new location.

Mike Nealy’s task has been to try to keep the franchise viable while its future is being hashed out. Promoted to the job of Coyotes’ chief operating officer last summer, the Minnesota native has had some success, increasing revenues by reducing discounts and giveaways. (On average the team hands out about 1,000 “comps” a game, down 40 per cent from last season.) But the team, 28th in the league in overall attendance, is still on track to lose $40 million this season. And it’s not just the uncertainty that has bled away their season-ticket base, but lasting challenges like Jobing.com’s Glendale location—on the far western edge of Phoenix, a traffic-choked hour away from the snowbird fans in the east valley. Nealy remains optimistic that hockey can work in the desert, but says it will take three to five more winning years to get the bandwagon rolling. “There are hockey fans here. But right now we see them show up and cheer for their former teams,” he says. “Part of our job is to get fans to adopt the Coyotes.”

Some don’t need to be convinced. On a concrete patio outside Gate 6, prior to a Thursday night tilt against Columbus, a couple of dozen hard-core Phoenix fans gather to smoke, drink, and lament the way Winnipeggers and the Canadian media seem to be conspiring to steal their franchise. Heather McWhorter, who blogs about the team and helped organize the Save the Coyotes Coalition, considers herself exhibit number one in the case for hockey in Arizona. Born and raised in south Georgia, she had no connection to the game—”We didn’t even know there was a team in Atlanta”—but fell deeply in love the first time she watched the ‘Yotes play live. “I couldn’t believe that no one had told me how awesome this sport is,” she says. Now McWhorter is a season ticket holder—$1,300 for upper bowl ducats to 41 home games.

Dawn Leeper, her friend and seatmate, grew up in Tucson as a fan of the local minor pro teams (three failed franchises in three years in late 1970s). It’s her first year as a season ticket holder, but Leeper has already developed a fan’s sense of ownership. “Every time I see a Manitoba licence plate, I want to yell out my car window: ‘Leave my team alone!’ ” Given the 120-km round trip from her Scottsdale home to the rink, it happens more often than you might think.

The Patio Six Posse have developed a healthy distaste for those pining for the return of the Jets. McWhorter has to ban commenters from her blog on a daily basis. The flame postings arrive in bunches, sometimes hundreds a day if she’s been quoted in a story about the team.

Canadian reporters are held in even lower esteem by both Phoenix fans and, most especially, the city of Glendale. “It has been very disconcerting in terms of the manner that the story has been presented and interviews presented,” says Frisoni. “The overwhelming majority of the Canadian press has taken a position that in the States only editorial writers would do.”

In the battle to save the Coyotes, there’s only one good guy, it seems. Gary Bettman’s patient approach wins kudos from the city, team management, Hulsizer’s camp, and even the Goldwater Institute, which credits the league for its respectful efforts to keep the dialogue going. Even the fans in Phoenix like the commish. “This might be the only place in the NHL where he could award the cup and not get booed,” says McWhorter. Proof that Arizona is a very different hockey market indeed.