GLENDALE, Ariz. - Despite facing an uncertain future, hockey fans in the Phoenix area have high hopes that their beloved Coyotes will remain in the desert.
After dramatic bankruptcy hearings over the summer that ended with Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie losing his bid to buy the team and move it to Hamilton, the financially-struggling Phoenix franchise will remain in the Arizona metropolis of about six million for at least this season.
"It's been a really unfortunate situation as far as it's been a mismanaged team and a losing franchise for most of the time it's been here," said Mark Hedley, an Ottawa native who moved to Phoenix nearly four years ago to work for IBM. "It's almost like a comedy of errors as far as how much has gone wrong with the franchise."
Mark and his wife Ashley were among 11,938 fans at Glendale's Jobing.com Arena on Thursday night when the Coyotes edged the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in overtime to improve their record to 6-2-0 .
As lifelong hockey fans, the Hedleys are happy to support the Coyotes in their new home.
"It was one of the reasons we moved here," Ashley said. "There's not many other places we could even afford season tickets for as long as we have, so it's a huge benefit for us and we love coming to the games."
In addition to paying just $700 per seat for season tickets in the upper bowl, the Hedleys appreciate other perks that Phoenix fans get when they support the Coyotes.
"It includes a lot of chances to meet the players and player interaction, which is something you don't get in the hot hockey markets," said Ashley, an Oshawa, Ont., native who's still a faithful fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, although the Coyotes are a close second.
While a sold-out crowd of 17,532 fans - in large part due to a fire sale of tickets ranging from $10 to $25 - took in Phoenix's 2-0 home-ice loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 10, a paltry 6,899 spectators watched as the Coyotes downed the St. Louis Blues 3-2 just five days later.
Thursday's crowd was much improved - although large blocks of seats in the lower bowl remained empty as did more than 25 luxury boxes - thanks in large part to thousands of Detroit fans who showed up to cheer on the Red Wings.
Among the large throng of Detroit fans in attendance were Chris and Julie McComb, who moved to nearby Surprise, Ariz., from Livonia, Mich., more than four years ago.
"I just love the atmosphere," said Julie, who was disappointed her Red Wings lost. "I love hanging out with hockey fans. It's fun."
Although he's a Detroit fan first and foremost, Chris has vowed to support the Coyotes this season as well.
"I'm actually more interested this year than I have been in the past," said Chris, who cheers for the Coyotes when the Red Wings aren't the opponent. "I'd hate to see the team move. It's just nice to have a place to come and watch hockey here in the desert."
This season, the Coyotes marketing and sales staff has worked hard to attract more fans to home games. At Thursday games, students and members of the military get discounted tickets when they present valid identification.
Starting with Saturday's home game against the L.A. Kings, the Coyotes will launch a promotion whereby all fans in attendance will receive a voucher for a free ticket to an upcoming contest if Phoenix wins. Known as 'We Win, You Win,' the promotion will take place at five select home games this season.
While promotions should help boost attendance, long-time NHL supporter Bill Honeycutt pointed to one important aspect of hockey that will put fans in the stands.
"Winning is a big thing, of course," said Honeycutt, who grew up in North Carolina and became a hockey fan when his dad used to take him to watch the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL. "When they dropped the (Carolina) Hurricanes in my backyard, I thought, 'This is incredible, I get to see NHL hockey right here in North Carolina."'
Now living in Peoria, Ariz., a suburb just northwest of Glendale and Phoenix, Honeycutt recalled that the Hurricanes had trouble gaining faithful fans until they made it all the way to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Red Wings in five games.
"That whole year really brought the whole thing together," said Honeycutt, adding the same thing could happen in Phoenix. "There are a lot of people here in Arizona, in the community, that come from other places and some of them have trouble giving up their original allegiances. Until they see a winner, it's tough to do that.
"Really what they need is to get into the playoffs, because playoff hockey is the most exciting thing, in my mind, that there is in sports," Honeycutt added. "This is a huge market. You've just got to put the right product on the ice and that'll get people to come out to the games."
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