WHEN WAYNE GRETZKY was a pimply 17-year-old playing for the Indianapolis Racers of the foundering World Hockey Association, he asked a teammate why all the players' wives were at the rink watching practice that day. Today was payday, Gretzky was told, and the wives had come to grab the paychecks and rush to the bank because only the first few could be cashed before the Racers' account was barren. "That," says Gretzky, now head coach and managing partner of the Coyotes, "isn't happening here."
The Phoenix team, which reportedly will lose $30 million this season, is for sale, setting off alarm bells about a possible bankruptcy. With principal owner Jerry Moyes's trucking business suffering in the economic downturn, the Coyotes are desperately in need of an "infusion of capital," in the words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and Moyes is trying to renegotiate the team's arena lease with the city of Glendale. "Nobody in his right mind is going to say this is a viable franchise with the current lease," says Gretzky of a 30-year agreement signed in 2003 that, among other issues, requires the team to pay the city for parking; for many NHL teams parking is a source of revenue.
The irony is that Gretzky, who owns a small percentage of the franchise, has been among those caught in this fiscal mess. There might not even have been a team in Phoenix (or Anaheim, or Tampa Bay, etc.) if the Oilers had not sent him from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988, a move that energized nontraditional hockey markets because of his immense popularity. This is the so-called Gretzky Miracle, which has looked less miraculous in recent years because of poor attendance for the Panthers, Predators and Thrashers, plus the sale of the Lightning in Tampa Bay. But the Coyotes' average attendance is up slightly from last season, to 14,890, and the oft-heard complaint that their struggles are further indication that the league suffers from a Sun Belt Blight discounts the successes of San Jose and Dallas and ignores recent bankruptcies in cold-weather redoubts such as Buffalo, Ottawa and Pittsburgh. In other words the theory that putting hockey teams in warm-weather cities is, by definition, a bad idea can be stuck where the sun don't shine.
Gretzky vows, "We're not going anywhere because this [lease] thing's going to get rectified," and the NHL, which has been acting as a "financial adviser" to the team since December, is actively helping with the search for investors to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. (If the team stays, the city likely will get the January 2011 All-Star Game.) Yet the money troubles have overshadowed a potentially promising season for a club that missed the playoffs for the last five years but was two points out of seventh place at week's end. While the franchise seeks fresh capital, coach Gretzky relies on fresh legs: eleven of 18 skaters in a 5--4 loss in Detroit last week had played 125 or fewer NHL games. "If we had an older group of guys, they'd be wondering if there was going to be wholesale changes or whether they were going to be relocated," says captain Shane Doan, one of two players, along with the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, to lead his team in points and hits. "For the most part it's kind of a blessing we're so young. If the kids are in the lineup, they're happy."
Why not? Unlike Gretzky's check-bouncing Racers, the only thing that's rubber around the Coyotes is the puck.
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Michael Farber's On the Fly and Allan Muir's Power Rankings.
PAUL CONNORS/AP (GRETZKY)
TASK AT HAND Gretzky and Doan (inset) hope to spur Phoenix to a playoff berth.
NOAH GRAHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (DOAN)
[See caption above]