In many quarters, this will be portrayed as, at long last, an ending.
The good folks on Glendale’s city council late Tuesday night agreed by a 4-3 vote to accept a lease agreement with a group of buyers that will allow the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes by the NHL to go forward and allow the team to remain in Arizona.
For anyone who has followed this tortured saga the past four years, a great and loud “hallelujah” rose up when the council finally tallied its votes and decided it was better to have an NHL team in its building even if it’s going to cost the city $15 million a year in management fees over the course of the 15-year lease to do so.
For a league that has had its share of ownership missteps and miscreants, this four-year horror story takes the cake, and so, yes, Tuesday on at least one level brings an end to the perpetual to-ing and fro-ing over who, if anyone, would own the team and whether and where it would go if there was no owner.
And so, yes, in some ways, an ending. And for that, hallelujah.
But for Anthony LeBlanc, the Thunder Bay, Ontario, native and former RIM executive who along with some of his business associates hung in until Tuesday night’s vote, this is nothing but the beginning.
And for the Coyotes, it’s at long last a beginning. Because now we’re all going to find out whether this will work.
Oh, lots of people assume it won’t.
Some believe this became a quixotic mission for commissioner Gary Bettman as he fought off BlackBerry guru Jim Balsillie (ironically enough, long ago LeBlanc’s boss in the technology world), who sought to strong-arm his way into the NHL ownership club by trying to buy the team out of bankruptcy four years ago and move it to Hamilton, Ontario.
Some believe that might have been a better plan from the get-go, although it's clear Balsillie’s strategy was flawed and his personality an impediment to getting a deal done through normal channels. (Never mind what has become of RIM, the company that made BlackBerry a household name in the interim.)
Whether the league’s strategy to defend this franchise as though it were a treasured family heirloom was misguided is moot. Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who were in Glendale on Tuesday night and received a raucously appreciative greeting when they walked into chambers, said all along they believed in this franchise and that an owner could be found, and they were right.
It’s more than a little ironic that, in their heart of hearts, they might have wished Glendale councilors had voted the other way. In the weeks leading up to the final vote, a group of investors emerged and was interested in taking the franchise immediately from the league and moving it to Seattle.
“We are obviously very pleased with tonight's result. It’s the last chapter in what has been a long saga, but it’s good news for the National Hockey League, the Coyotes franchise and the people of Glendale," Daly told ESPN.com via email after the vote was cast.
The Glendale vote puts Seattle on a back burner, but it will also serve as a constant reminder of what might have been -- especially if things go poorly in Glendale.
And certainly it’s fair to expect that those investors, Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza, have been given the inside track to the next team that needs a new home or when/if the league decides to go from 30 to 32 teams, more likely now if indeed this marks a turnaround for the beleaguered Coyotes (who will now be known as the Arizona Coyotes).
The Coyotes’ new ownership group has an out after five years should it lose $50 million over that time. But until that time passes, we remain at the beginning.
This process has tried the patience of everyone in hockey, so you can imagine what it’s done to the fan base in the Phoenix area. During the lockout-shortened season, the team recorded the second-smallest home attendance in the league at 13,923 per game (just more than 81 percent capacity). And this after the Coyotes went to their first Western Conference finals in the spring of 2012.
With three straight trips to the playoffs before this season, the Coyotes enjoyed their greatest success since moving from Winnipeg after the 1996 season. But who could blame fans for not committing to the team during this glacial process of finding an owner and with the perpetual murmur of relocation always in the background?
What a great opportunity squandered thanks to all the tomfoolery that marked the attempts over the past four years to find an owner and to get a new lease agreement together. The blame falls everywhere from the league to the Goldwater Institute (the public watchdog group that forced itself into the process and scared off at least one potential owner) to tire-kicking would-be owners who never had a fraction of the money they claimed to have.
And, of course, the local politicians made this among the most farcical business transactions recorded anywhere. There’s a reason people started calling this Gongdale. And while the moniker didn’t exist at the beginning, it would have fit nicely the moment they decided to build an arena in the hopes of luring a franchise to the wrong side of the valley.
But all the boo-hooing in the world won’t change that.
LeBlanc and his group came up with a series of compromises at the last minute in an effort to get the city to back off a five-year out clause of its own, which would have scuttled financing for the purchase of the team and skewered the deal.
If they use their five-year out, the new owners will pay the city any losses beyond the $6 million it has budgeted for arena management over the five-year period. They also included the city in revenue streams and brought in a new partner, Global Spectrum (a subsidiary of Comcast Spectacor and owner of the Philadelphia Flyers), that will help manage the facility and, in theory, generate more income for both sides.
At the heart of the matter Tuesday was the question of whether the municipality would be better off without the Coyotes and the lease agreement that was crucial to keeping the team in Glendale.
There is no crystal ball to provide that answer unequivocally. Maybe tractor pulls and revivals and death metal concerts would have been enough to keep Jobing.com Arena viable and the surrounding businesses from withering and dying.
But maybe not.
And so the politicians, having spent millions of taxpayer dollars first luring a team and then literally tens of millions to keep it during the search for an owner, swallowed hard Tuesday and opted to keep paying to ensure the Coyotes don’t go anywhere, at least not right away.
Skeptics assume this will turn into an even greater pile of compost. Perhaps it will. But you know what? No one knows how this will turn out.
Maybe it will be a disaster, maybe people will stay away in droves, maybe the businesses in the mall adjacent to the rink will wither and die anyway, and maybe taxpayers will be even worse off than they are now. And that’s a damn sobering thought.
But no one knows that.
What happens if Dave Tippett, a man widely considered to be the best coach in the NHL, gets his guys back in a groove next season? What if Mike Smith, he of the new six-year contract extension, gets his ’12 playoff mojo back? What if Oliver Ekman-Larsson continues to be the best defenseman in the NHL no one knows?
We saw fans pack Jobing.com Arena three straight postseasons. Now that there’s an ownership group that will put in place a viable ticket sales program, work on promotions and developing relationships with the local business community, and develop continuity and connection with the fan base -- all things that have been done piecemeal if at all the past four years -- maybe it will work.
“I don’t get involved in anything with an expectation of failure,” LeBlanc told one of Glendale’s councilors near the end of Tuesday’s meetings.
Different dynamics, to be sure, but think about the San Jose Sharks. Nontraditional market, took some time to get going, but have for years been among the league’s most stable franchises. That’s what stability and continuity at the ownership level does for you. It trickles down; it becomes your identity.
We’ve seen the Nashville Predators turn a corner with solid ownership. Why not the Coyotes?
As the vote neared Tuesday, LeBlanc was asked by councilman Sam Chavira whether it was fair to say that if he failed, the city failed.
“Absolutely correct,” LeBlanc answered.
So now it’s time to find out whether this team and this town were built for each other. As Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame opined at the end of the first chapter of “Fools Die”: “But enough. Let me get to work. Let me begin and let me end.”