If the National Hockey League was a Tennessee Williams play, the Phoenix Coyotes would be Brick, the favourite of Big Daddy Gary Bettman, and the rest of the league would by Gooper, the older brother who can’t figure out why Big Daddy is so partial to Brick.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick is handsome, hopeless, drunk, injured from a stupid stunt and fighting with his wife, the luscious Maggie (“the cat”), who has failed to provide him with a child. Gooper looks exactly like you’d expect a guy named Gooper to look. Gooper has children, who Maggie calls “no-neck little monsters.” Gooper’s primary sin is that he’s not Brick.
Like Gooper, other NHL owners must wonder what it is that Big Daddy Bettman sees in the Coyotes, who are once again about to become homeless. On Tuesday Bettman fired off a letter to Arizona legislators, declaring that “The Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale,” the suburban arena they’ve occupied since they moved out of an earlier home in downtown Phoenix, after moving from a previous home in Winnipeg.
Glendale “is not economically capable of supporting a successful NHL franchise,” proclaimed Bettman. “The Arizona Coyotes must have a new arena location to succeed.” He wants taxpayers to pony up to keep them alive.
This is a big change in position from Bettman’s previous declarations, i.e. that the Coyotes were a great franchise that would absolutely succeed in Glendale with a good owner, the right arena and bigger crowds. Of course, any franchise would succeed with the right owner and arena, and healthy crowds.
Over the years, as the NHL commissioner pointed out in his letter to the lawmakers, the league (which means Bettman) has “tried everything imaginable to make the Glendale location financially sustainable.” It has scoured the desert (and beyond) for new buyers. It tried running the team on its own. It chased away Jim Balsillie when the Canadian entrepreneur offered a generous price, because he wanted to move the team to a market where it might actually succeed. It managed to tick off Wayne Gretzky, who quit as coach and kept his distance from the league for several years over millions of dollars The Great One felt he was owed.
Bettman and Co. successfully have squeezed the compliant burghers of Glendale for repeated subsidies to keep the team alive. When the city finally decided it could no longer afford the honour of a team that couldn’t attract flies, the league brushed it aside and set off in search of other pockets to pick. It thought it had a willing patsy when Arizona State University signalled interest in building a 16,000-seat arena on a golf course it owns (Canadian universities have their own golf courses too, right?). The university pulled out in February, but, right on time, a co-operative state senator came along to offer up tax dollars in its place.
Sen. Bob Worsley says his plan “tears up the playbook” on arena deals. It would be a win-win for the team and the community. It would create thousands of construction jobs. It would generate millions in revenue for the economy. Sure, some state tax revenue would be “reinvested” in the site, but – hey! – what are tax dollars for? The Coyotes are willing to put up $170 million of their own money, more than 40 per cent of the anticipated cost. And since when are sports teams expected to pay full fare for their own facilities? Just ask the Edmonton Oilers about that, and look at the humdinger of a rink they’ve got. Supporters point to NHL phenom Auston Matthews as evidence Arizona can produce hockey talent. Of course, Quebec has also been home to one or two decent players, and its brand-spanking-new arena in Quebec City sits empty and yearning for life, scorned by Big Daddy.
There is some talk the proposal may not be unanimously popular. Arizona, as you may have heard, is a fairly conservative state. Glendale’s city manager says the city spent $500 million on the Coyotes and wouldn’t be thrilled to see the state pump in millions more to help them go elsewhere. It’s generally accepted that if the Coyotes get a state handout, the local baseball and basketball teams will be right there with their hands out, expecting reciprocity.
“Fundamentally, what you are doing is you are going into the state general fund and you are appropriating dollars to a private concern,” Sean McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association told the Arizona Republic. Should Arizona students be paying the price of Bettman’s infatuation?
Anyway, anyone who thinks Gary Bettman will be fazed by any of this doesn’t know the NHL commissioner. No one can be quite sure why he loves the Coyotes so much, just as Gooper could never figure out what it was about Brick that so enthralled Big Daddy. But Maggie the cat did eventually convince Brick it was time to have that baby. Maybe Bettman is hoping that enough effort will eventually give birth to a successful franchise. So far, however, it’s only the taxpayers of Arizona who are getting the shaft.