The hockey world was set ablaze last night after the City of Glendale voted to terminate the lease agreement it signed with the owners of the Arizona Coyotes - Renaissance Sports & Entertainment - two years ago. The news comes at a terrible time, and is undoubtedly a body blow for the many Coyotes fans unfairly caught in the middle of all of the ownership strife these past few years.
Because the NHL is highly unlikely to simply fold the team over the offseason, the Coyotes will have to play somewhere. But if not in Glendale, then where?
What Happens Now?
The most straightforward scenario occurs if RSE prevails in court (and this could conceivably go all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court depending on how the lower courts play out). Should the courts conclude there was no conflict of interest, then Glendale's termination of the contract would be illegal, and the agreement would remain in place as is.
The picture gets significantly messier with any other outcome. The Coyotes are not simply going to abide by the Council's decision and renegotiate the agreement. In fact, the NHL would likely step in and attempt to block RSE from renegotiating with Glendale, because the league does not want to set a precedent where its teams change their lease agreements with municipalities when the city so desires.
So ultimately, if Glendale prevails in court, the Coyotes will almost certainly spend no more time in Glendale than absolutely necessary, a season at most to arrange another venue. The relationship between RSE and the City Council - already strained enough before last night - is beyond repair.
For Glendale to renege on its contractual obligations on an obscure law more than two years after the alleged violation occurred is bad, but doing so after meeting with Majority Owner Andrew Barroway less than 48 hours prior to the vote and assuring him that everything was fine is another level of underhanded.
Who Says You Can't Go Home?
The Arizona Coyotes have few, if any, good options in a scenario in which the courts uphold Glendale's decision to terminate the agreement, especially if the NHL likely stops any renegotiation with the city.
First, the Coyotes may explore a temporary return to Downtown Phoenix and the US Airways Center (soon to be Talking Stick Resort Arena). The timing would be tricky; if the legal proceedings finish this summer and Glendale wins, the Coyotes would have almost no time to forge an agreement with Robert Sarver and the Suns for even a brief stay.
If the proceedings last into the 2015-16 season though, the Court might decide to allow the agreement to remain in effect until the conclusion of the season. Or Arizona might be able to broker a one-year temporary agreement with Glendale. That would give the Coyotes more time to figure out if returning to Phoenix is a feasible temporary solution.
But of much more interest to Coyotes fans, the idea of a long-term stay in Phoenix is already being pushed by at least one member of the Phoenix City Council.
This would be the best long-term option for hockey in Arizona. A new facility in Phoenix would be centrally located in the Valley, and Phoenix has a significantly larger tax base than Glendale does. The financial pressure on the Phoenix City Council that caused Glendale to cave on their contractual obligations would not be nearly as strong in Phoenix.
But there is no new arena coming any time soon. The City of Phoenix and the NBA's Phoenix Suns (the primary tenant) have only begun preliminary discussions about a new building. And the current facility in Downtown Phoenix is not suited for hockey, which would reduce the capacity of the Coyotes' home arena to roughly 16,000, including some obstructed view seats. It's a setup that's anything but ideal.
The second option is the least palatable for Coyotes fans: permanent relocation. It may not be possible to salvage the situation in Arizona, and the team may have to move. Given the buzz surrounding expansion, and the push to build new arenas, the Coyotes could end up playing in a new home for good to start the 2015-16 season.
There are problems with relocation now too. The only city with an NHL-caliber arena ready for play next season would be Quebec City's Centre Videotron. And that arena is scheduled to be completed by September 21st, 2015. Any delay in the completion of the arena could bleed into the regular season, and even then the Coyotes would likely play their preseason games in the Colisee Pepsi next door.
This is the least palatable for the NHL too. For one, a relocation fee would net the league's owners far less than an expansion fee. Additionally, the league would lose one of the largest media markets in North America (some 4.2 million in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area) for a far smaller one (765k people in the greater Quebec City area). And yet another NHL franchise would be vulnerable to fluctuations in the Canadian Dollar. It's not a great solution either.
The Third Way
But perhaps the NHL does something truly unorthodox. Perhaps they cobble together a fix that isn't elegant, cheap, or satisfying to anyone involved, but simultaneously accomplishes two major league priorities at the same time.
What if the NHL temporarily relocated the Coyotes to Las Vegas?
It wouldn't be the first time a professional sports team in North America called a new city home for a short period of time. The New Orleans Saints played home games in both San Antonio and Baton Rouge in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina. The circumstances here are obviously much different than what the Saints faced, but one core tenet remains: the team can't find a place to play in their city fast enough to start the season.
But playing in Las Vegas would work for a few reasons. First, the NHL has already played games (albeit preseason games) in the old MGM Arena, as recently as 2014. The capability to play hockey games in Vegas is already there, and with the new MGM Arena scheduled for completion in early 2016, the Coyotes wouldn't be stuck in the old facility for very long.
Second, temporarily relocating the Coyotes to Las Vegas would preserve the league's regional balance. There would be no need for re-alignment, and the Coyotes would not be travelling more than they already do during the season. Additionally, Las Vegas is closer to Arizona than any other potential relocation destination. It would be possible (though difficult) for the Coyotes to maintain their broadcasting partnership with Fox Sports Arizona, and to keep a regional presence in Phoenix until a local option was hashed out.
Third, it would be the perfect opportunity for the NHL to test Las Vegas' viability as an NHL city. If attendance was robust in a less than ideal arena to support a team that was not intended to permanently reside there, then the NHL would feel pretty confident about expanding to Vegas.
Update: And as Twitter User Josh Pearlman notes:
@Five4Howling Another strength for the temporary Vegas idea is how the Hornets moved to OKC. Ultimately brought the Sonics to OKC.— Josh Pearlman (@JPearlAZ) June 11, 2015
Obviously, this scenario has many problems too. The Coyotes would certainly have to take a major loss with a temporary fix like this, if they continued to own the team at all. The league might be forced to cover some of the costs associated with a temporary relocation.
Additionally, whereas the Saints situation was by necessity and included the most popular sport in America, this option would be by choice and feature a niche professional sport in the Southern United States. To say that a lot could go wrong would be a tremendous understatement.
Apart from the first scenario, the NHL and RSE face very complicated and unappealing options for the future of the Arizona Coyotes. It's a testament to the scope of the mess the City of Glendale has made that all of these options are being considered. But all of this is speculation, and will remain speculation if the Arizona Coyotes prevail in court.