Phoenix needs Coyotes - not just hockey - fans

Hi folks. I'm not dead, if you were wondering (and I'm pretty sure you weren't). The economy has me running around like a chicken with my head cut off - plus, I'm also editing another SBNation blog now, so between that and work I haven't been able to give OdinMercer the help I promised him a while back. Sorry, Odie.

But I'm back, and I've got a bone to pick with this fair city of mine.

I've lived on and off in Phoenix since 1978. I started out in Scottsdale, and then in 2003 I moved out to Peoria. In between, I went to college out of state and worked in Boston for a couple of years. I've also lived in Mexico and have visited several European countries.

So when I talk about the unique quality of Phoenix-based sports fans, I think I have enough time logged in the Valley and enough exposure to other types of fan to make comparisons.

Over the summer, when the Coyotes were deep in the throes of the bitter bankruptcy and attempted hijacking by Jim Balsillie, I spent a lot of time on other sites (most vocally over at James Mirtle's From The Rink) defending the Coyotes' fans and the Phoenix market in general, trying to combat the extremely widespread idea that Phoenix simply will never work as an NHL market.

My main argument, put succinctly, was that with a nearly decade-long history of absolute suckage and a relocation to a new city in the Phoenix metro area, it was ludicrous to expect Phoenix to come out and sell out the Jobing.com Arena the way that cities in Canada allegedly do for bottom-muncher teams. Because Phoenix is not a "traditional" hockey town, it required time and at least a basic level of success and competence to build up the kind of passionate crowds now enjoyed by places like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington - previously slumping franchises that got over their suckage and started filling back up their arenas as a result.

I would tell the critics, "Give us a couple of seasons with a competent coach, a General Manager that knows what he's doing, and a consistent team that can win hockey games and is capable of making the playoffs... and then if we still can't sell out, maybe the Coyotes just don't belong in Phoenix."

I didn't think that was too much to ask, to be honest. We haven't had a combination of any of those elements for... well, for longer than I've had season tickets, and I've been a season ticket holder for six years.

Well, here we are now, just over halfway through the 2009-2010 NHL season. The Coyotes are fourth in the West as of this writing, sixth out of 30 teams in the NHL, and playing great hockey overall. There is a head coach who knows what he's doing and can motivate his players. There is a GM that has pulled off some absolutely unbelievable moves (Upshall for Carcillo and a 2nd, anyone?) and is one of hockey's least-recognized brilliant minds. And although the Coyotes do not have a single superstar player on the roster, they are playing disciplined games and still (knock on wood) have not lost more than two games in a row in regulation all season.

In other words, we haven't made the playoffs yet, but we certainly have everything else I was looking for. You'd think that this would make me thrilled for the future, knowing that we have almost all the pieces for a potentially great franchise... that finally there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Instead, I'm scared to death.

Why? Because Phoenix still isn't supporting this team.

It's not just the local media, although they haven't moved one iota off of their traditional "Hockey? Who gives a crap?" talking points (although we seem to have converted folks like Sarah McLellan to our cause). You can only blame them so much.

No, the problem is a much bigger one. With lowered prices and better play, the Coyotes are drawing more hockey fans to their games... but not very many of them are Coyotes fans.

Phoenix is a city of transplants, and what I've noticed lately is that a lot of Phoenix-resident fans only show up to hockey games if their favorite hockey team from their former hometowns is in Glendale to play the Coyotes. Then they come out of the woodwork - whether it's the blue-and-yellow painted hooligans yelling "Let's Go Buff-A-Lo!" or "wicked pissah" beer-sotted Bruins fans or Red Wings fans with Yzerman jerseys on, they come in droves. There's nothing inherently wrong with this - after all, the Coyotes have only been in Phoenix just over a decade, so it's not like they've had time to build the generational following that most of these other teams have built.

What worries me is that these hockey fans only go to the one or two or three games a season where their "out-of-town favorites" show up, but they stay home the rest of the time. They have no interest in cheering for or supporting their local hockey team. Therefore, while there are artificial boosts in attendance for the games where they show up, there is no "pack mentality" to motivate them to come to other Coyotes games during the year.

What is left over when teams without the rabid local transplant following come to play is sobering. There is a core of die-hard fans, to be sure - I'm certainly one of them - but the rest of the 6,000 or so folks who show up act as if they are attending a seminar on local littering ordinances. There is a curiously dead vibe in the air at most games, and I can't figure out why. Are these people afraid to invest emotionally in the team because they've been burned so often in the past by the promise - and then the spectacular flameouts - of Gretzky-led teams? Or have years of being baked in the hot Arizona summers slow-cooked the enthusiasm clean out of their bodies?

It seems to me that the Coyotes' biggest challenge at this point is building up a base of Coyotes fans - not hockey fans. Hockey has proven to be quite popular among Phoenix sports fans, no matter what the critics north of the border will tell you. But when the majority of hockey fans in the Valley are those with allegiances to other teams, well... that simply is not a promising situation.

Which brings me back to my sense of dread. With the Coyotes playing so well, the team should be building a base of Coyotes fans. And they don't seem to be doing that. There are excuses to be had everywhere - not enough local press, not enough of an ad budget, etc. etc. etc. - but having spent all summer saying that the most critical element for building a following is performance on the ice, I am starting to get very nervous. I know that if the team makes the playoffs, the Job will sell out every game. But after the playoffs are over, what will the story be during the regular season?

I don't want the Coyotes to leave Phoenix. But I also know that the team can't survive with a playoff-only fanbase. I desperately hope I am wrong in fearing that that may be all that Phoenix will offer this franchise.

A friend of mine told me that one of the Sabres fans in attendance a few games ago asked her, "How does it feel to be outnumbered in your own building?" I'll tell you how it feels - not good.

My fellow die-hards will probably get on my case for my pessimism, and maybe they have a point. We still don't have an owner yet and in fairness to the team they haven't had enough time for their success to sink in in a town so used to years' worth of failure. They will tell me that I'm borrowing trouble needlessly.

I hope they're right. I hope that sometime soon this aggravating stumbling block will be removed and Phoenix fans will open their hearts for their home team instead of just for their favorite team.

But when I go to hockey games with golf-clapping zombies who can't even be bothered to cheer aloud for their team, it makes me wonder whether Phoenix will have survived the Balsillie hijacking only to lose the team anyway to apathy.

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