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Craig Morgan: If Arizona gets a new NHL team, it likely won't be soon

The NHL made official last week what had been rumored for a little while —  the Arizona Coyotes are moving to Salt Lake City.

The team played its final home game at Mullett Arena last Wednesday, and on Friday, now-former owner Alex Meruelo and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman met the media to talk about the relocation and what may be next for pro hockey in Arizona.

Craig Morgan, who covers the Coyotes for PHNX Sports, joined The Show to talk about the present and potential future of this team.

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: It seemed like there was an interesting vibe at that press conference on Friday between Alex Meruelo and Gary Bettman.

CRAIG MORGAN: Yeah, it was interesting to say the least. Alex hasn’t spoken publicly, really since he took over. Since the introductory news conference, he hasn’t done media interviews, and we had been told he just wasn’t comfortable in those settings.

Quite frankly, it showed that day. Gary Bettman had to step in for him on multiple occasions, literally put his hand on his arm, step in and offer a different take. There was one time where he said, “I hate media,” and I’m not sure if he meant it or not. I’m OK if he does, actually. But he is a public face at this point with this franchise, and we have to do our job.

Gary had to step in and correct him and say, “What he really meant by that is he’s not comfortable.” And Alex backed that. But there were a number of moments like that where it was clear that he wasn’t comfortable in that setting, and his messaging just felt off point. It just felt awkward and at some points, honestly, cringeworthy.

BRODIE: So Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has been for the last few decades, very bullish on Phoenix and the Valley as a hockey market. Obviously it came to a point apparently with the failed vote in Tempe that the NHL said this can’t continue this way. What did Bettman say about the prospect of bringing a new team back to Arizona?

MORGAN: Well, they are still very bullish on this market. They believe that this is an excellent market. And there are a lot of reasons why. The population base alone and the fact that it’s growing.

It’s just that the same issues exist that have always existed with this market. They don’t have an arena, at least not in the right location. A lot of people point to Glendale and say, “Why don’t they just go back there?” Well, they found out financially that it didn’t work in Glendale.

Gary Bettman himself said it multiple times. “We can’t make it work out there. We have to have an arena in the right place.” So in order to solve that very big issue, whatever group comes in here, whether it’s Alex Meruelo completing a land purchase and getting this built or another group coming in if he fails, they have to solve that before anything else moves forward. We need an arena.

BRODIE: Let’s talk about that because as part of the deal to sell the Coyotes, Meruelo has basically a five-year window to get an arena built. “State of the art” — there’s some language in the contract there about what that arena has to look like. But what happens if he’s not able to pull that off?

MORGAN: Well, there are benchmarks along the way that he has to hit in order to maintain this five-year window. It’s not just, “OK, let’s see where he is in five years.”

I was told that within a year, he has to secure a piece of land. And that doesn’t necessarily mean winning this land auction. If he doesn’t win the auction, he could potentially pivot to one of those other areas of land. We know they had a letter of intent on a piece of land in Mesa. I believe they had another letter of intent — I haven’t been able to find out where that parcel was. So he could pivot, but my understanding is he has to secure the land within a year.

And then when you look at the other pieces of this, he has to give the NHL a year and a half notice to reactivate the franchise. And at that point, the building has to be 50% constructed. So when you look at construction timelines, if we’re not seeing girders in the ground by year three, this isn’t going to happen, and it’s time for the NHL to pivot to someone else.

BRODIE: Does it seem as though that’s what the NHL is looking to do, that if if it’s not going to be Alex Meruelo, they still want a team here and they just kind of open it up to, “Hey, who’s got, you know, a couple billion dollars hanging around and some land or an arena?”

MORGAN: Yeah, I think that’s exactly the play. Now, Gary Bettman is not going to come out and say, “I want Alex Meruelo to fail,” but I think they wonder whether he can get it done. Listen, that’s part of the reason they pulled the plug right when they looked at this. Even though they were messaging that it was a three-year construction timeline, I think Gary looked him in the eye and said, “Can you really tell me this is going to be built in three years?”

And they couldn’t, they couldn’t say that. So there’s that. And then you wonder about the political opposition, which has been rampant for a long time in this. We saw what happened in Tempe. You saw the Scottsdale mayor — mind you, I think that was posturing more than anything because he didn’t have much impact — criticizing.

BRODIE: On the water issue.

MORGAN: Yeah, the water wasn’t coming from Scottsdale. But will (Phoenix Mayor) Kate Gallego actually support this? I know she’s pro-development. We’ve seen some other developments coming to the city of Phoenix, but there’s a lot of baggage with this current ownership group. Did they really want to get in bed with them?

BRODIE: Well, and when you talk about baggage with this ownership, that also goes out to the fans as well. Do you get the sense that the NHL is cognizant of the fact that there are a number of fans who maybe don’t trust this ownership group and might be less likely to back an expansion team if it’s run by these people?

MORGAN: I’m not sure how aware the NHL — the NHL has a lot to manage, right? They have a lot of things on their plate, including launching a new franchise in Utah.

But having said that, I still think the NHL is probably more cognizant of it than the Meruelo ownership group. I don’t think they have a sense of where their fan base is at all, and I think that’s been part of the problem.

They just aren’t in touch with their fan base. They've shown this tone deafness in so many different respects. A lot of people have criticized their social media approach. That’s rampant. You see that in so many different areas of the organization. I don’t think they have a feel for this community, and I don’t think they ever tried.

BRODIE: What was that last game like for players? Obviously we’ve heard a lot about the fans. We’ve heard a lot about the league and everything. But these players are having their lives uprooted, and they’re going to be compensated for it, and they make a decent amount of money. So I don’t think anyone’s crying a lot of tears. But especially for someone like Josh Doan who grew up here with his dad as sort of the face of the franchise — what did you hear from some of the players about this move?

MORGAN: Yeah, there’s a lot of mixed emotions here. I’ve seen some national reports that players can’t wait to get out of here because they want to play for “a real ownership group,” and there’s definitely validity to that argument. They've had issues with their travel arrangements. They’ve had issues with the facilities they have here. I’m sure you’ve heard about the practice facility up at the Ice Den, where they have to ride golf carts from the arena to their practice facility, which is off-site in a business park adjacent to it.

So there’s all sorts of things like that that players just haven’t felt like they’ve been taken care of like everyone else in the NHL is taking care of. Having said that, yes, these guys have built lives here. Lawson Crouse and his wife Claire were closing on a house on April 19. You think that’s not upsetting them? That now they have to leave their dream house?

There are people that have had babies or are having babies this year. People have built lives. I have talked to a lot of players, to a lot of wives and girlfriends, to a lot of parents of these players. They love living here. They wanted to stay here, but they understood why this decision was made because of all the things that had gone on here.

BRODIE: All right. So we’ve about 30s left. I’m just going to ask you to look into your crystal ball for a minute, which I know can often be cloudy on these kinds of things. Do you think that there will be another NHL franchise in the Valley in the next, let’s say, in the next decade?

MORGAN: Decade is probably a safer bet. These projections of five years, I think are — if you look at history, after a (city) lost its franchise, the fastest, its ever comeback was in Minnesota in seven years. And that’s clearly a hockey market. I think people should just prepare that it’s going to take a little longer than they think.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record. 

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.