NHL committing to keeping Coyotes in Arizona

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is committed to keep the Coyotes in Arizona

BOCA RATON, Fla. — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is committed to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, while stressing that the team doesn’t have a future in its current arena in Glendale.

“We have not given up on that market,” Bettman said Wednesday on the final day of GM meetings. “But we wanted to make clear that the long-term future and viability of that team, the Coyotes, isn’t going to be in Glendale.”

Bettman was referring to a letter he sent Arizona politicians in support of a bill that would fund a new arena in the greater Phoenix area. The Coyotes play at Gila River Arena in Glendale, far west of downtown Phoenix and even farther from many potential fans in the Valley of the Sun. The city cancelled a long-term lease agreement with the club in 2015, and the lease now operates on a year-to-year basis.

It was for that reason, Bettman said, that the Coyotes were looking for a home elsewhere.

“The team has got a number of options and is going to pursue them so nobody should think that team is moving — other than out of Glendale,” Bettman said. “But short-term they’re going to stay in Glendale while they’re pursuing the options.”

A plan to build a new arena in Tempe fell through when Arizona State University backed out last month.

Bettman also addressed the NHL playing in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

“There’s absolutely nothing new,” Bettman said. “And I think the overwhelming sentiment of the teams is that it’s very disruptive on the season and there’s somewhere between fatigue and negativity on the subject.”

Bettman said no meetings were scheduled with either the International Ice Hockey Federation or the International Olympic Committee and said the NHL was focused presently on an 2017-18 schedule that didn’t include the Olympics, but would feature a revamped bye-week period.

The NHL moved the former Winnipeg Jets franchise to Arizona for the 1996-97 season. The club has since operated under a cloud of long-term instability, including bankruptcy in 2009. The Coyotes have struggled to fill seats and field a consistently competitive on-ice product, advancing past the first round of the post-season just once.

The club sits 29th among 30 teams this season.

“Look it’s on everyone’s mind of course,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “To be the organization we want to be we have to have a place to play that’s economically feasible long-term.”

Chayka said it wasn’t fair to suggest that the Coyotes experiment had failed and that the team should move elsewhere. He cited the story of Auston Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs centre and 2016 No. 1 overall pick who grew up in Arizona rooting for the Coyotes.

Arizona is averaging just over 13,000 fans this season — third-last ahead of only the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders.

“I think it’s a great market,” Chayka said. “I think players love playing there. I think it’s good for the league.”

“I believe that the greater Phoenix area is a terrific sports market,” Bettman added. “It’s a terrific hockey market. And I think if the Coyotes — when the Coyotes get a new arena better situated I think the team will do very, very well there, better than they have in terms of the attendance and business side.”

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