There's not much about the Arizona desert that resembles Canada except for the marketing of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Since Anthony LeBlanc and his Canadian-heavy ownership group bought the team last summer, Tim Hortons has become a mainstay in Jobing.com Arena and a "CanadaFest" rock concert has been scheduled. LeBlanc, the team's president and CEO, estimated that 25 per cent of Coyotes tickets are purchased by Canadians.
With such a heavy influx of Canadian snowbirds during the winter months, it's no surprise the Coyotes want to attract those hockey fans. But it's a delicate balance.
"Myself and seven of the nine of us (in ownership group) are Canadian, so we don't want to look like we're pandering too much to the Canadian market," LeBlanc said in a phone interview recently. "The most important thing for us is to have a solid fan base, a solid, large fan base here in the Valley. Because we do have a good, solid fan base, it just needs to grow."
One part of that balancing act comes Friday when the Coyotes will honour 10 players from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. hockey team as part of an Olympic send-off celebration. Captain Mike Eruzione, Neal Broten, Steve Janaszak, Rob McClanahan, Ken Morrow, Buzz Schneider, Dave Silk, Bob Suter, Phil Verchota and Mark Wells will be introduced prior to the game and before the 2014 Sochi Olympians from the Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks.
"I thought (the idea) was outstanding," Eruzione said. "No one's ever done anything like this, other than the all-star game in L.A. in 2000 where they honoured the team. I was really kind of proud they would think of us to do something like this."
It was LeBlanc's idea last summer, but this wasn't done as simply a way to sell tickets. Due to what he called an "astronomical" amount of Chicagoans in the area, the game is already a sellout.
Instead, the benefit is more exposure, more people around Arizona talking about the Coyotes around the time the focus is on the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.
"We know what our requirement here is and part of it is we need to increase the awareness of hockey and the brand of the NHL," LeBlanc said. "So what this has been able to do for us is really get a bit of mind-share that we probably wouldn't be getting."
In a perfect world, Eruzione would have liked to do a ceremonial puck drop between Patrick Kane and Keith Yandle, but the Coyotes defenceman did not make the U.S. roster.
"It's kind of bittersweet for me because Keith's such a great kid and a local (Massachusetts) kid that he's not there," Eruzione said. "But I think that our team is being recognized along with the current Olympians is pretty special."
LeBlanc, who's from Thunder Bay, Ont., is particularly excited to see Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks honoured, along with Canadian Olympic goalie Mike Smith.
But for one night, this Canadian businessman's focus will be on the United States.
"We want to get people excited about Team U.S.A. because nothing would do better for us than to see Team U.S.A. have a great Olympics," LeBlanc said. "I expect a couple of very hearty "U-S-A" chants to go up at many times during the evening.
"As a Canadian, I won't be able to help myself but get kind of wrapped up in the moment because I think it's going to be pretty exciting."
That's what LeBlanc hopes will happen to Canadian fans and those from parts of the U.S. who watch the Coyotes at points during the season with a passing interest. One of his goals is to make the Coyotes into many Arizona residents' second-favourite NHL team.
"I think that really is what we need to establish is that it's great that you're here cheering for the Blackhawks or you're here cheering for the Oilers," he said. "But if you're here in town, why not come and cheer for the Coyotes when they're playing St. Louis?
"We have no problem with the fact that when their favourite team's here, they're cheering for their favourite team. But we want to be their second-favourite team."
LeBlanc worked toward that when he had property in South Florida.
"I started going to Panthers games when the Senators were in town, and then all of a sudden the next thing you knew I was going to 10 games a year, and one year I probably went to 20 games," he said.
If that same kind of evolution happens as the Phoenix Coyotes become the Arizona Coyotes, they'll see season-ticket sales rise and continue to build a following. But a large part of becoming more popular is the on-ice product.
"As the team plays to the level that we expect them to play, I think you're naturally going to get some of those fans," LeBlanc said. "But then it comes down to the experience of going to a Coyotes game, and it has to be enjoyable."
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