So it's come to this. The NHL is now formally tabling an offer to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes. I want to say I'm surprised, but I'm not. Is anyone?
As a Canadian, a large part of me wanted to see the Coyotes move back north. Ontario is my home province, and after living their for almost two decades I know a team in Hamilton would be a financial success. The dedication the province has to the sport is astounding. It's a dedication that can in one way or another can be found across the country. Losing the Jets and Nordiques was losing a small part of our national identity, and with expansion teams popping up all across the United States without any consideration of offering Canada another team, that wound has gotten deeper. And yet, even as a Canadian hockey fan from Ontario, I don't want the Coyotes to move.
When I was young, my dad moved to Denver. Growing up in Ottawa, my favourite baseball team were the Toronto Blue Jays. Even though I had never been to a game, I liked the Jays, knew all their players and everything about the Skydome. Then a funny thing happened: Denver got a baseball team. I was lucky enough to see games at Mile High Stadium and Coors Field in those early years, when the team was never that good but the games were always fun to see. I quickly adopted the Colorado Rockies as my team. To this day they remain so.
At the end of the 1994-95 NHL season, I remember getting a phone call from my dad telling me that the Quebec Nordiques had announced they were moving to Denver. During their few years in Colorado I attended more than my fair share of games. At the time, my hometown Ottawa Senators were far and away the worst team in the league, but the Colorado Avalanche were good. I knew everything about Patrick Roy, loved watching Peter Forsberg work magic, and became fascinated by Joe Sakic's wristshot. The Avalanche became my Western Conference team, because like the Ottawa Senators, I was there from the beginning.
I never once thought about the fans in Quebec City. They didn't matter to me. The Avalanche were my team.
Colorado is one of the few recent cases where moving a team to a new city worked out well. But Denver is a fickle sports town; a losing team doesn't fill the seats. After years of consecutive sellouts the Avalanche are now doing poorly at the box office. Yet even though attendance is down significantly, there aren't many suggesting they move out of town. Over in Phoenix, though, that's not really the case.
You could argue pretty successfully that the Coyotes have never drawn well, but I could argue back that they've also never really had a good team. The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in their first season. That qualifies as a pretty good team. Attendance aside, there's almost no support from the city of Glendale, but the team was never supposed to leave Scotsdale in the first place. There have been so many missteps in managing the business side of things that it's no wonder the franchise is in the shape it is now.
I feel for the Coyote fans out there. Maybe you're laughing reading that, thinking "what fans? They don't have any." They do. There are the ones who've gone to the games from the very beginning. There are the ones who can't afford to support the team as much as they'd like, but who still love their team. But most important, there are those who grew up with the Coyotes the way I grew up with the Avalanche. There may not be enough of them to justify keeping the team in Arizona, and in the end they will probably move, but don't think for a second that it won't rip the heart out of people who care about the game as much as you or I do.
Business is what it is, money is always going to be the bottom line. It's easy to watch Jim Balsillie take on Gary Bettman and Jerry Reinsdorf and see nothing but money deals and perceptions of entitlement. They are the story, and the fans are a footnote. Will most people care about those fans in Phoenix if the team moves? Probably not.
But I will, because my heart would break if my Avalanche moved to Hamilton, or anywhere else. They are my team.
And there are people who call the Coyotes their team, too.