Duhatschek: It’s time for Gary Bettman to let go of his obsession with the Coyotes and Arizona

In 1996, Gary Bettman was about three years into his reign as NHL commissioner when the Winnipeg Jets were sold to an investment group led by Richard Burke and moved to Phoenix.

I don’t remember Bettman fighting much to keep the team in Winnipeg back then. Too cold. Market too small. An outdated arena. And the Canadian dollar was trading at 70 cents or less against its American counterpart. That meant leading a team there — or anywhere else in the small Canadian market — in the pre-salary cap NHL was a financially risky proposition.

Honestly, what could poor Gary and the NHL Board of Governors do but approve the transfer of the team? After all, Bettman was originally hired to help the league grow as a business. And Phoenix looked like a Holy Grail. The fifth most populous city in the United States. An important place to fill the NHL’s American television footprint.

And for a moment, it looked promising.

People forget: The early years at America West Arena, the downtown Phoenix facility they shared with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, were packed and the atmosphere was raucous. Unfortunately, the building was completely unsuitable for hockey. Because it had been built to house a basketball team, the seats at one entire end of the arena were obstructed.

Not ideal. Still, it seemed for a while that it was going to work.

Until it doesn’t.

The Coyotes became a soap opera. The move to suburban Glendale was a disaster in many ways. A succession of owners and future owners each getting their own six-episode story arc. Do you remember Steve Ellman (and his minority partner, a guy named Gretzky)? Jerry Moyes? George Gosbee? Andre Barroway? Alex Meruelo? These are just some of the people who eventually gained full or partial stake in the team.

There were also failed attempts by Jerry Reinsdorf, Matt Hulsizer, Greg Jamison, Darin Pastor and the band Ice Edge, all of whom kicked the Coyotes’ tires and for one reason or another didn’t. did not or could not complete the purchase.

The most publicized of the failed attempts to buy the Coyotes came from BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. This attempted sale was ultimately blocked by a court, acting on behalf of the NHL.

Eventually, the league ended up running the team for four years after Moyes declared bankruptcy, which effectively left Bettman in charge as de facto CEO.

Indeed, the Coyotes became Bettman’s white whale, his albatross, the thing he couldn’t let go.

In so many other aspects of his work and corporate life, Bettman is so practical and pragmatic. SO, what will be will be.

The Coyotes got personal. They have become an obsession. The more people advised him to give up — and let them go somewhere else — the more adamant Bettman was that they had to stay. The Coyotes played last season in the 4,500-seat Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State University.

It was meant to be a three to four year temporary measure until the team could build a new arena in Tempe. Note here: Under no circumstances would Bettman have ever approved similar temporary accommodation for another team.

He did it for the Coyotes because he invested so much personal capital to keep them in Arizona. But on Tuesday, voters in suburban Phoenix rejected three proposals to build a $2.1 billion entertainment district that would have included a new arena for the Coyotes.

Bettman showed up in person at all of those Tempe City Council meetings where the arena project was discussed, jumping on behalf of the team. He promised the Coyotes would be in Arizona forever if the building was approved. He never did that for Winnipeg. Or Atlanta.

Officially, once they heard the bad news Tuesday night, the league and team responded with similar statements. Bettman was “terribly disappointed” with the referendum results, the Coyotes simply “very disappointed.” Both statements promised that team owners and the commissioner will meet to assess what’s next for the franchise over the coming weeks.

There is, realistically, only one logical path.

Sell ​​the team and relocate it elsewhere. Houston would be the easy choice. It is another major American city without an NHL team. A natural rival to the Dallas Stars. A team that could fit well into the current league conference setup. Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Portland would also meet the latter criteria. Atlanta has already failed twice as an NHL franchise, but support there is apparently growing for a third try.

And of course, there’s great visceral appeal in returning to Quebec, which also lost its team around the same time the original Jets moved to Phoenix. Concretely, entering a real hockey market like Quebec is not on the league’s priority list and probably qualifies as a mere pipe dream for fans (and some jaded hockey writers, who remember what it is). was when Quebec was the NHL’s answer to the Green Bay Packers).

At this point, after a landslide defeat at the polls, you might imagine that even Bettman is finally ready to admit defeat and let it go. But knowing Bettman and his playbook, he can’t or won’t let that happen, at least not yet. It’s like it’s over.

If keeping the franchise in Arizona wasn’t such a fixation for Bettman, you’d think it would be safe to predict that he East on.

Logically, practically, and financially, this Arizona craze has run its course. But what are they saying?

The best way to predict future behavior is to pay attention to the past. After 27 years of Bettman drumming on behalf of this franchise, there’s a part of me that thinks he’s not ready to wave the white flag yet. On the contrary. Knowing the way Bettman thinks and acts, no one should be surprised if he doesn’t try – one last time – to pull another rabbit out of his hat and keep the team in Arizona.

Let’s see if I’m right.

(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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