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Fandom Amid Futility

Adam Clair

The team is bankrupt, has endured nothing but futility, and plays an 'ice sport' in the heart of the desert. Why I am still rooting for the Phoenix Coyotes?

I am a Coyotes fan. No, really. I am a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey team. I exist. I swear.

It’s a tough gig, surely. I’ve put up with an awful lot from the Coyotes -- though, of course, never a playoff series victory -- but these past few months have been the worst I’ve had to endure. The Coyotes have never been a powerhouse, but since last winter, they have been in such dire financial straits that their entire existence was in jeopardy. While wondering where -- and, for a while, if -- this team would be playing in the future (and becoming an expert on bankruptcy law), I was forced to figure out exactly why I’m a fan in the first place.

The Coyotes moved to Arizona in 1996 from Winnipeg, Manitoba. No small number of Canadian hockey purists are still bitter about this. This is the same year I started following hockey, so it only made sense for my 10-year-old self to adopt a fledgling team as my own. A contrarian even then, I wanted no part of my hometown Philadelphia Flyers.

Because of where the Coyotes play, they are a long shot not just to win any given game but in fact to even survive as a franchise. The Phoenix metropolitan area is 4.3 million, ranking it 12th among US cities. But such a figure does not guarantee viability. Phoenix is rather spread out, with no real central downtown destinations after 5 p.m. and 9 a.m., and anyway the Coyotes stadium is in Glendale, a solid 20 minutes from Phoenix and twice that from Scottsdale, one of the region's wealthier suburbs. While hockey teams can certainly survive in four-sport towns, Phoenix is unique in that it lacks tradition: the city’s oldest team, the Suns, arrived in only 1967, and many of the city’s residents are transplants. Thus, there is no transgenerational devotion to the city’s teams or even the city itself. That is, none of the residents grew up watching their parents watch these teams, and as a result few of them grew up watching the teams themselves. Phoenix has as many sports fans as any other city; it’s just that so few of them root for local teams, as neither the fans nor the teams have been there long enough.

Phoenix is a tough market for any team, but especially one playing a sport as foreign to the area as hockey. But contrary to the opinion of the zealots that don’t think the game should be played south of a puck’s roll from the Canadian border, it will not take a snowy day in the Valley of the Sun for the game to catch on. In fact, it’s already growing, with ice rinks popping up all over. To say it’s impossible is defeatist at best. If McDonald’s can open a franchise in the Louvre, the NHL can sell hockey in the Southwest.

New ownership groups continue to believe in the dream. In 2001, an ownership group led by developer Steve Ellman purchased the Coyotes from Phoenix businessman Richard Burke. By 2006, Jerry Moyes, who was a minor part of Ellman’s original group, had controlling interest in the team as well as the lease to the new stadium in Glendale. In the few years he owned the team, Moyes never turned a profit. Just how much he lost, however, is unclear due to some nebulous accounting. Naturally, Moyes got sick of sinking money into a team that couldn’t draw, even if his management was a key reason they weren’t drawing in the first place: Court documents revealed, among other things, that Moyes was charging the team well above market value to use his own plane for travel. Partway through last season, he turned over control of the team to the NHL, which helped him seek a buyer.

But unable to find someone to pay what he was asking, Moyes decided to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (against league rules) so that Research in Motion CEO Jim Balsillie, the same guy who tried to move the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators to Ontario, could buy the team at a grossly deflated price and relocate the team without paying fees to the league or indemnity fees to the the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres, whose territories he'd encroach by putting a team in Hamilton, Ontario.

After months in court, Arizona Bankruptcy Judge Redfield T. Baum ruled against Balsillie’s bid for the team with prejudice, but not simply because it broke the longstanding precedent of professional sports leagues choosing where its franchises get to play. (That would have set a dramatic precedent applicable to all professional sports leagues.) Instead, he ruled against a loophole that Balsillie’s camp was trying to exploit.

Over the course of those months, the few other bidders who wanted to keep the team in Arizona dropped out, and the only one left was the NHL itself. Baum did not officially award the team to the league (it first needed to amend its bid slightly), but for all intents and purposes, the NHL was controlling the team in a partnership with Moyes, who ultimately decided to just sell his stake in the team to the league. The NHL said it was committed to finding a local owner, but there were hurdles -- namely, the agreement with the city of Glendale likely needs to be reworked. Conspiracy theories abound, including the NHL secretly hoping to move the team to Kansas City or Las Vegas or even back to Winnipeg, where the Coyotes played from 1972 to 1996 as the Jets. Now, a group calling itself Ice Edge Holdings LLC, one of the original bidders for the team that had been scared off, has reappeared and seems set to buy the Coyotes, signing a letter of intent with the league. The group intends to keep the team in Glendale but have the the Coyotes play some home games in Saskatoon, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

Somehow, though, a few months into the season, the Coyotes are where they’ve been since 1996. And I’m happy about this, for some reason, even though just about anywhere they could move would be closer to me in Pennsylvania.

But I don’t root for the Coyotes because of where they play. So why do I root for them? It’s not the jersey. Though the sweaters they had when they first got to Phoenix were as bold as anyone’s, the redesign a few years ago left them with the least imaginative uniforms in a league wherein two-line passing was seen as revolutionary. It’s not the players, either. Shane Doan, Zbynek Michalek, Martin Hanzal -- these are guys I would probably root for on other teams because they’re entertaining to watch, but certainly not as hard as I do while they are Coyotes. I stuck around after Keith Tkachuk left, I stuck around after Teppo Numminen left, and I’ll probably stick around when the current batch leaves too. It’s not the coach—the Coyotes ostensibly spent the last four years without one. The Coyotes were 143-161-24 under Wayne Gretzky’s not-so-great tutelage. It’s not the stadium, either, as I didn’t become a fan simply because they shared America West Arena (and all its obstructed view seats), and I didn’t jump ship in 2003 when they moved to Jobing.com Arena. It’s certainly not because I’m a front runner, given this team has missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and hasn’t won a series since 1987, when they were still in Winnipeg and I was still in swaddling clothes.

Still, if this team were forced to move, I would care about it a whole lot less. But why? Is the team now at all like the one I began to root for back in 1996? But for the name and exactly one player, nothing is the same. Rooting for a team for an extended period of time is like rooting for the ship of Theseus, the apocryphal watercraft that had every plank replaced. Is it the same boat?

The practical answer to this is, of course, yes. No cell in my body is more than a few years old, but the me that exists now is, in some ontological way, the same me that existed before any of my current cells were generated. Speaking about my devotion to an ineffectual hockey team in such metaphysical terms probably seems pretentious, and maybe that’s symptomatic of the typically hackneyed and watered down sports-as-narrative motif. But this chapter fits into that narrative anyway. For some reason, I still get happy when this team wins and, more often, down when they lose.

And the narrative is important. This is why it would be nice if the team was better this year than it was last year (and so far, this appears to be the case) but nonsensical if they were the best team. It's improbable to say the least that the 2009-2010 Phoenix Coyotes will win a playoff game much less the Stanley Cup. But if they did, it would render the entire competitive basis of the NHL so completely absurd as to be irrelevant.

A championship is not just about the endpoint; for one thing, some corporal consistency in the body athletic is necessary. If your favorite team were to trade away every one of its players and win the championship with some combination of scabs and jersey-snatching mercenaries, would you care nearly as much? This is in many ways what the Coyotes have: on the current roster of 20 everyday players, only nine were regulars last year. It takes time to care about new players. And that's to say nothing for the handful of promising young guys -- Kyle Turris, Viktor Tikhonov, Mikkel Boedker, et al. -- who were on the team last season but are spending this one in the AHL.

Merit is important, too. If your team went undefeated but the others had all been tanking for one reason or another, what would those wins be worth? Or what if your team had cheated? What if the games were rigged like pro wrestling? To care about a team winning a championship, that team has to be good, but so does everyone else. If the Coyotes could somehow win a championship this year, it would stand to reason that no one else in the league was any good, or—worse—that good just isn't very good at all.

On the ice, this team is always the underdog. Against any team in the league (and maybe even a bunch of teams from lower leagues), they are always the little guy. But off the ice, they’re an even bigger long shot. It’s still uncertain just how long they’ll be staying as they are. It may be hard to root for a team when success seems likely, but it’s even harder when success is categorically impossible. Even David has to give up eventually.

For now, though, the Coyotes are still in Arizona, and so far, they even resemble a real team. After an off-season spent mired in financial uncertainty (and thus one spent without the ability to, you know, build the team or even market it), making the playoffs seems a stretch. But as long as there’s even a glimmer of hope, as long as this little dog is still barking, I’ll keep cheering for it.

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