Philadelphia, PA – For nearly four years the Phoenix Coyotes searched far and wide for an ownership group to finally deliver them from an era of tremendous uncertainty.
That quest officially came to an end Monday when the NHL, which had owned and operated the franchise since 2009, completed the sale of the Coyotes to IceArizona. With the deal finalized the club now knows it'll be playing in Glendale, Ariz. for at least the next five seasons, giving the Coyotes more stability than they've had in quite some time.
The new ownership group, which is led by Canadian businessmen George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, has a prime opportunity to prove once and for all that hockey belongs in the desert.
"It was a complicated transaction, probably one of the most complicated transactions I've worked on in 21 years in the financial business," Gosbee said in a conference call. "But a lot of hard of work and support kept us going through the process. Now we can start focusing on what matters and that's building a winning organization here in the Valley."
Unlike the NHL, which was doing its best just to keep the franchise afloat, the new owners should be able to focus more on putting a strong product on the ice and not simply making sure the bills get paid. The fact that Phoenix was able to make the playoffs for three straight years before last season was a testament to the team's ability to play through distractions, but the Coyotes could fare even better without the constant specter of financial ruin or possible relocation hanging over their heads.
IceArizona purchased the Coyotes for $170 million and the sale also sets in motion a $225 million lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena in which the city of Glendale will pay the team $15 million annually for 15 years to operate the building. If things go as planned and the projected revenues pan out, the club is expected to reimburse Glendale to the tune of $9 million a year.
However, Gosbee and LeBlanc also have allowed themselves a way out should the financial situation in Glendale become untenable. The new owners had a five- year out clause built into the sale agreement and they can enact that stipulation should their cumulative losses grow to $50 million over the next five years.
The out clause was essential for the new owners, who felt the need to insulate themselves from possible financial ruin should the Coyotes fail to make money. Not a bad idea considering Phoenix has been ranked either last or second-to- last in the NHL in average attendance in each of the last four seasons. Gosbee and LeBlanc will beef up the organization's marketing division in an attempt to solve the attendance problems, but time will only tell if those efforts are successful or not.
"I think the onus is on us to put the product out there," LeBlanc said about the out clause.
Although the Coyotes are anything but a safe bet as a financial investment, the hockey side of things will remain in the steady hands of general manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett. The duo found a way to make the best of a bad situation while the franchise was under NHL control and somehow managed to make it to the Western Conference finals in the spring of 2012 before bowing out to the Los Angeles Kings.
However, during last season's lockout-shortened campaign the Coyotes finished 10th in the West and four points out of a playoff spot. It was the first time the franchise missed the postseason since Wayne Gretzky's last season as Coyotes head coach in 2008-09. Despite missing the playoffs the Coyotes could be in line for a rebound season with the ownership question finally answered. In time, the hope is Phoenix's new owners will bring about an era of financial stability that allows them to open the coffers and spend some money to lure free agents.
Maloney and Tippett have proven they can get a lot done on a tight budget, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind having a little extra money to spend. Perhaps the signing of centerman Mike Ribeiro to a four-year, $22 million in early July -- before the new ownership deal was officially approved -- is the sign of more free-spending days to come.
It's unlikely the Coyotes will ever be able to match the Philadelphia Flyers or Detroit Red Wings of the world in spending, but at long last there is hope they can start functioning like a healthy NHL franchise.
Gosbee and LeBlanc have five years to prove buying the Coyotes was a worthy investment.
The clock starts now.