Cybulski: Reason to be optimistic about hockey in Phoenix

James Cybulski
12/13/2009 10:26:46 PM
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Over the past few years, we've seen the NHL welcome the likes of a guy named Boots into their fraternity, and an ownership duo in Tampa that makes Tiger Woods' marriage look like a stable one. In recent years, NHL owners seemed to have racked up more jail time than the hip-hop world, but finally it seems as though the league has got it right - and in Phoenix of all places. 

The Coyotes saga had to be one of the most painful to follow in 2009 so there's no point in trying to rehash the NHL versus Jim Balsillie saga, but the end result may yet have a happy ending. With Ice Edge Holdings signing their letter of intent with the league on Friday, it shows that there is reason to believe that hockey may yet live in the desert. No people, I'm not drinking while writing this. 

Here's why it has reason to work. Despite what others may say to the contrary, these new owners are legit.

Anthony Leblanc, the group's CEO, retired in his 30s after enjoying success during the early years at RIM - yep, the same place as Blackberry Jim.

His partners, Daryl Jones, Todd Jordan and Keith McCullough come from Research Edge. Research Edge was one of the rare firms that correctly called the stock market top for 2007 and bottom in 2009. Not a bad track record considering these are the guys that spent months studying the books of the Coyotes. That group doesn't include their some of their private investors in Arizona who are worth billions. The group's plan upon closing, is to have one of the lowest debt loads of any NHL club...less than $10 million. The deal is also being done with upfront equity.

In short, these guys are successful businessmen for a reason.  They recognized a chance to grab an NHL franchise for a steal of a deal, but are also smart enough to know whether it can work or not. In some respects, they can thank Jim Balsillie for the deal. The same man they were competing with to buy the team essentially scared off any other potential buyers by proclaiming just how bleak the situation was in Arizona.

Glendale has also recognized that it needs to give the Coyotes a fighting chance. The downside is that the city's arena is in the middle of nowhere, but that seems to be changing.  Over the past five years, the Cardinals have set up shop there, USA Basketball is building a home across the highway and the Chicago White Sox have placed their spring training facility in Glendale as well.  It's becoming a sports suburb, but it needs to be more than that for the Coyotes to be successful.

Ice Edge spent the summer working very closely with city officials figuring out a commercial relationship that helps both the team and the city.  What's interesting about the Coyotes is that their expenses are some of the highest in the league despite the team being close to the salary cap floor. Without having the city on board with this ownership group, this deal isn't made.

Finally, if nothing else, these guys get hockey. They were raised in a country that is all about puck. Two of them are from Thunder Bay, Ontario, another from Bassano, Alberta.

Don't get me wrong - there have been some awful Canadian owners along the way, but these guys have a sparkling business background and a hockey bloodline.  They recognize that there are business decisions and hockey decisions. These guys didn't make millions of dollars acting like clowns. They made truckloads of dough because of being smart businessmen and knowing which risks to take a chance on and which not to.

There's an uphill battle in Phoenix. Besides the business issues, the on-ice product has stunk for years, but there finally seems to be promise. As a Canadian, I still believe there should be more NHL franchises in this country.  Winnipeg and Quebec City, I really hope you get a second chance. There's still a strong possibility that southern NHL teams could wind up north - I just don't think the Coyotes will be one of them.

What's crazy is that I never would've thought this six  months ago, but with legit owners on the way, there is suddenly reason to be optimistic about hockey in Phoenix.

The key now is to find some fans... 

Coyotes fans with sign (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)


(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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