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Coyotes' Canadian owners know there is work to be done to stabilize franchise

Jeanette Moore of Phoenix, the aunt of fallen firefighter John Percin puts up a remembrance in photos to her nephew adding to the memorial for the fallen firefighters in front of Prescott Fire Station #7 on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Eighteen firefighters from Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team and a 19th firefighter from another crew were killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were based out of Prescott Fire Station #7. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Wallace)

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Jeanette Moore of Phoenix, the aunt of fallen firefighter John Percin puts up a remembrance in photos to her nephew adding to the memorial for the fallen firefighters in front of Prescott Fire Station #7 on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Eighteen firefighters from Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team and a 19th firefighter from another crew were killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were based out of Prescott Fire Station #7. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Wallace)

Anthony Leblanc had watched and joined failed attempts to buy the Phoenix Coyotes before. He had no previous connection to Arizona, but after spending years watching the situation, the businessman from Ottawa took another swing as the front man for Renaissance Sports&Entertainment.

He got his investors and financing together, sought and received approval from the NHL and finally went to the City of Glendale to get a deal done. Together with his partners, commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly, they sat at a city council meeting Tuesday night wondering aloud, "Well, we hope this works."

"If they voted it down, this was the end of the road," Leblanc said.

Glendale's city council voted 4-3 to approve a new arena management deal for the soon-to-be-renamed Arizona Coyotes, the final roadblock to at least five years of franchise stability. But that's just the first step for a Canadian-led ownership group to show why fans in the area should trust it and embrace hockey in the desert.

"Quite frankly, it's going to take time for people to see us in the community and believe us and know we have some work to do to get to that point, but we're dedicated and we plan to provide them with that," Leblanc said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

That's quite the uphill climb considering the year-to-year survival of a franchise that was mired in bankruptcy after six seasons of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. But count Bettman and general manager Don Maloney among those who believe Renaissance will revitalize the Coyotes.

"The bulk of (the owners) are from Canada, they understand the game," Maloney said. "They understand that to have a good product, you need to invest in the product. You can't run a team in a Southern market on a shoe string and expect to have long-term success."

Leblanc knows the ins and outs of the franchise very well. He tried before to buy the Coyotes as part of Ice Edge Holdings. He also worked at Research In Motion for nine years, watching as boss Jim Balsillie made missteps as he tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, then the Nashville Predators, then the Coyotes, with the goal of moving a team to Hamilton.

Leblanc wasn't personally involved in those quests, but he learned how important it was to build a relationship with the NHL, something Balsillie underestimated in his failed endeavours. In January, on the advice of friend and Ottawa Senators president Cyril Leeder, he decided to take another look at buying the Coyotes.

Through business partner Daryl Jones, Leblanc connected with Calgary businessman George Gosbee , and the three men flew to Arizona to watch a game and worked from there to gather investors. Avik Day, a partner of Gosbee 's, joined the fold, and the group met with Bettman and Daly to finalize a sale.

"It just worked and it made a lot of sense," Leblanc said.

Organizing a way to pay US$170 million and getting league approval figured to be the hard part, but an acrimonious debate within local government almost made everything fall through for a handful of Canadians with no previous ties to the American Southwest.

"There's been some sleepless nights over the past week," Leblanc said. "Just getting the purchase and sale agreement in place with the league, which we had done, that literally cost us million of dollars in legal fees. There was significant risk to us last night if this went sideways."

There's still plenty of risk in the situation. As part of a 15-year, $225 million deal to manage Jobing.com Arena, there's a five-year out-clause that gives ownership the ability to end the lease if cumulative losses total $50 million or greater. Leblanc argued that Glendale mayor Jerry Weiers wanted a shorter deal and that having that clause was an "insurance policy."

"We want to have a longer deal. We think the stability of that is important," he said. "But this is no different than any other business. If we get involved with this, we can't in good faith be there to fund in perpetuity if things don't turn around because it wouldn't be a viable business. So we just needed the opportunity that, if we're wrong—which we don't think we are, but if we're wrong and we can't effectuate the change that we think we can—we have to have the opportunity under circumstances, and under a very short window of time, to be able to do that."

Being able to reconsider options after five years has certainly led to plenty of speculation about a Canadian-led group wanting to move the team. By 2018, there could be brand-new arenas in Quebec City, Seattle and Las Vegas.

But Leblanc made it clear that he and his partners aren't planning on making a short pit stop in Arizona.

"Over half of my investment partners already own homes here in Scottsdale where they spend the winter months, and I can guarantee you that the other half will have done the same thing by the time the season starts," said Leblanc. "I'm moving down completely, I'm relocating here over the next month or two and this will be my home."

Some final paperwork is still required to get the deal signed, seal and approved. Leblanc expects that to be done in the next three or four weeks.

Once it's official, everyone will get to see whether Bettman's stance last month will hold up.

"We actually believe if you gave the community an owner, not the league, who said, 'I'm committed to being here,' this franchise actually could be successful from a business standpoint," the commissioner said June 12 before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. "If there was certainty surrounding this franchise, its fortunes would improve dramatically just by virtue of putting in a real owner."

Leblanc doesn't have delusions of grandeur. He sees the Coyotes growing to be a mid-level NHL franchise, similar to the Dallas Stars or San Jose Sharks. His plans to lean on friendships with Leeder and Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman to help shape some business aspects.

From the hockey side, not much will change. Maloney will remain in charge with a bigger budget that Leblanc expects to increase ever year. The Coyotes won't be a team that spends up to the salary cap, but the hope is they'll be able to grow as they expand in the market.

Now that everyone knows they'll be staying.

"Every year in the last four years there was this black cloud hanging over the franchise: the question of whether we were even going to be there the following season," Maloney said. "Now there's a lot of work to be done, but the first step is stable ownership and committed ownership, and that's what we have with the Renaissance group. Now it's up to us to make it work."

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