Desert no place for ice hockey

Wayne Gretzky looks into the desert and contemplates his existence in Phoenix

This just in from the Department Of The Obvious: residents of Phoenix (the people who haven’t lost their houses to foreclosure and still live there) don’t give two squirts about the Coyotes, let alone the Edmonton Oilers.

We know this because the Coyotes play in a half-empty building, even though they paper Jobing.com Arena with tickets that can be purchased with a used burrito wrapper and two pieces of pocket lint.

Is it really surprising that a city made up largely of condo developments full of leather-faced widows and that has an average age of 117 sucks as a hockey market? Some spring training games at Ho-Ho-Kam Park draw more fans for the Chicago Cubs than the Coyotes do.

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That’ll be the case again tonight as the Coyotes, out of the playoff race, play out the string against the Oilers and mark the days until golf season officially winds down — it works in reverse in Arizona because players in the desert hit the links during the season before it gets too hot in May and June.

What the Oilers need to do is forget about all the empty seats and the look on Wayne Gretzky’s face that says, “Somebody get me out of here because I’m dying a slow death,” and take the two points, which they will, then head for Anaheim.

Get outta town

A recent poll, reported by the Arizona Republic, reinforces what we already know: “Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican survey research firm based in Virginia, conducted phone interviews with 300 Glendale voters on March 23. When asked whether Glendale should give the Coyotes $3 million to $15 million each year to keep the team local or to allow the team to move out of state, 72 percent said to let the NHL team leave.”

When I worked the beat, Phoenix was one of my favourite places. It’s a great break from winter. There’s fine restaurants on almost every corner and it was fun sitting on a patio somewhere on a January night wearing short sleeves and having a cigar with Rod Phillips while people back home where freezing their asses. More on that later.

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That said, I never once mistook the Valley of the Sun for a hockey market, even years ago when former GM Mike Barnett first showed Jim Matheson and I a scale model of all the development that’s now a reality around the hockey rink.

NHL bossman Gary Bettman should do everybody involved a favour and get behind relocating the franchise. Arizona is a great place to visit, but hockey doesn’t sell there. It never will.

Back to Winnipeg, Kansas City, Seattle, wherever.

Desert tales

Between covering the Oilers, spring training for baseball and boxing when Scotty Olson was kicking flyweight backside, I’ve probably been to Phoenix 25 times on work gigs. Lots of memories…

One of the few times I’ve seen an NHL player blush was in Scottsdale, and that player was Mike Comrie back in November of 2001.

Comrie, who’d had a great bantamweight scrap with Daniel Briere of the Coyotes at America West Arena the night before, and the rest of the Oilers contingent was gathering around the bus at the Ritz Carlton Hotel before heading to the airport.

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It so happened the Orlando Magic were also staying there. Out walks Patrick Ewing, all seven-feet and 260 pounds of him. Ewing, in his final season as a player, went to the Oilers game and saw the fight. He spots Comrie, wanders over and chats him up.

Ewing looks down, way down, at Comrie and says, “You’re one bad man. I wouldn’t mess with you,” instantly drawing guffaws from teammates and setting Mike’s cheeks ablaze.

And…

Witnessed easily the best piece of hair-on-fire journalism I’ve seen in the bowels of America West Arena in 1996.

Mark Spector, now of Sportsnet, was working the Oilers beat at The Journal. I was also in Phoenix for The Journal, covering spring training, and had come in to write a sidebar.

Anyway, with the bus waiting, Spector has his game story done with 15 minutes to spare, a laugher in deadline terms. Problem is, when his computer asks if he wants to “save changes” before he sends, Spec has a brain cramp and hits “No.” Story gone. Every word. Empty screen.

Spec re-wrote the piece, about 600 words with a quotes and all, in about 11 minutes and still made the bus. That’s smokin’.

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During the 1999-2000 NHL season, a colleague and I from another newspaper, who shall remain anonymous, were at a little bar named Eli’s, a dimly-lit trendy kind of joint I’d discovered during my baseball days.

Some dame starts chatting up my winger. She wants to dance. She wants to drink. She’s all over him. I get the nod that I might have to cab it back to the hotel myself, if you get my drift.

To make a long story short, when the house lights come on at closing time, one glance tells us that we’ve met somebody who looks like Joe Frazier, and he’s wearing a wig.

— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6pm on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on TEAM 1260.


  • Chaz

    I think the reasoning of the NHL going to Phoenix in the first place was that all the Canadian snow birds who flock there in the winter would fill the seats up. They didn't take into consideration that the Canadians go down to Phoenix to get away from all things winter. Ahhhhh…..sweet sweet hindsight.

  • Malc

    And why doesn't Seattle have an NHL team? I think it would be a great market. There would be a rivalry with Vancouver, not to mention the other Pacific coast teams. It would also make Western road trips a little more worth it… etc. etc.

  • Bruthah

    Robin B wrote:

    and it was fun sitting on a patio somewhere on a January night wearing short sleeves and having a cigar with Rod Phillips

    Damn, that just sounds cool. Who needs friends, R-Bro? WRITE THE DAMN BOOK!

  • Malc wrote:

    And why doesn’t Seattle have an NHL team? I think it would be a great market. There would be a rivalry with Vancouver, not to mention the other Pacific coast teams. It would also make Western road trips a little more worth it… etc. etc.

    Clearly you've never been to Seattle. All they like there is coffee, technology and plaid. I have a buddy that literally lives 30 minutes from the Canadian boarder, and he's a HUGE sports fan. Loves all things football, baseball, even soccer he'll watch. So we figured it was going to be an easy transition to get him to like hockey. But he never took to it. Didn't understand it and just never got into it. Seattle is such an odd place for things like that.

  • Robin B

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    Of course, as interesting as the stories about journalists would be, I’d rather read about NHL’ers that Brownlee’s interacted with.
    That Boris Mironov story you told a while back was great, and I like those sorts of tales.

    There are plenty of those, but you know the saying "what happens on the bus, stays on the bus." It usually works out that way, for the better, save for the relatively tame stuff.
    OK, another vignette . . .

    It was the mid-1990s and I wanted to talk to Phil Esposito about a feature I was doing on Russian players. I track him down at the Ritz in Chicago and the switchboard puts me through to his room.

    "Phil, it's Robin, I'm doing this story on Russian players and . . ." Esposito cuts me off. "Just a second, I have to take a crap," he says. I figure, no problem, I'll just wait.

    Turns out Esposito was on the toilet when I called and he'd answered the phone that's in the washroom of each room. What follows is about a minute of Esposito muttering something about bad clam sauce and a play-by-play of him taking a dump that couldn't have been any clearer if he'd taped the telephone to his ass.

    With the flush still echoing, Esposito picks up the telephone and, like he'd never put it down, says, "I hated those f*cking guys."

  • 442Junkie

    Robin B wrote:

    Turns out Esposito was on the toilet when I called and he’d answered the phone that’s in the washroom of each room. What follows is about a minute of Esposito muttering something about bad clam sauce and a play-by-play of him taking a dump that couldn’t have been any clearer if he’d taped the telephone to his ass.
    With the flush still echoing, Esposito picks up the telephone and, like he’d never put it down, says, “I hated those f*cking guys.”

    Can't stop laughing long enough to type witty response…come to the realization none is needed.

  • Cam

    I was at a phoenix game (in Phoenix) in February, and it was like being at Rexall since everyone was wearing copper and blue. Vancouver and Calgary also usually sell out at the Jobing.com arena. Other than those six games they are lost.

    One way to get more revenue for Phoenix would be to move them to the NW division, then they would have three more sellouts… lol.

    They will never move back to Winnipeg because then Bettman would have to admit an error. It won't happen. I agree that the team can't stay there for long… especially with the economy in Phoenix being "on it's face". It was amazing to see the amount of Bank Sales down there.

  • RLH

    The Towel Boy wrote:

    jeanshorts wrote:
    All they like there is coffee, technology and plaid.
    Some things just go good together.

    Especially since he forgot all the microbrews.

  • Harlie Chuddy

    @ Robin B:

    The Espo tale is epic! He sounds the exact same way (minus the swears) on XM. Actually one day i was listening and he kept referring to a certain player who does well when playing in the slot. Problem was that the way Espo pronounced it he usede a "u" versus and "o". So he goes on and on about this player playing in the "sl*t" and then after a couple of minutes he catches himself and starts laughing about it. My respect for the man grew 2 sizes that day!

  • Gene's Pubes

    baggedmilk wrote:

    @ Robin B:
    Robin, I think my favorite story to date is Marc Crawford looking for a night on the town with all of you guys and then spent the night alone with the Victoria Secret catalog.

    The male Victoria Secret catalogue?

  • The Menace

    Robin B wrote:

    Remember that time at Tootsie’s in Nashville Kevin Karius and I . . .

    We need a "Tootsie's" in Edmonton – I'd definitely hang out a Tootsie's.

    "Would you like to Tootsie-size that?"

  • Robin B

    The Menace wrote:

    Robin B wrote:
    Remember that time at Tootsie’s in Nashville Kevin Karius and I . . .
    We need a “Tootsie’s” in Edmonton – I’d definitely hang out a Tootsie’s.
    “Would you like to Tootsie-size that?”

    Then, there was the time Spector and I were in Legend's Corner, which is right beside Tootsies. Legend's Corner has an open stage and a lot of young, upcoming artists and bands play there.

    Spec and I had a few drinks, OK, more than a few, and for some reason we got fixated on wanting to hear the song, "Hot Rod Lincoln," which isn't exactly a country tune. Barry Melrose was there, and so was Brian Ross, the Oilers video coach, and Caillie Quinn, who is Pat Quinn's daughter.

    Anyway, we decided we damn well weren't going to leave the joint until one of the bands played the song. By about midnight everybody was sh*tfaced and when a new band would take the stage we'd be yelling from our table, "Hot Rod Lincoln, Hot Rod Lincoln . . ." To this day, I can't remember if any of the bands played it, but we had a helluva time waiting for it.

  • dw

    baggedmilk wrote:

    @ Robin B:
    Robin, I think my favorite story to date is Marc Crawford looking for a night on the town with all of you guys and then spent the night alone with the Victoria Secret catalog.

    I'm betting it was the Sears catalogue.

  • Peter Pan

    @ Robin

    Whenever a journalist or media type tell a story about NHL road trips, it seems that everybody and anybody following the teams hang out together, regardless of affiliation or employer. Coaches, players, media,etc going to dine together is great, but don't you think it's a bit mean not to invite the poor referee's out with you? Aren't they part of the family Robin? Aren't they? Sniff

  • Chris

    Part of the problem in Phoenix is that they have iced a mediocre hockey squad for years… The Phoenix Coyotes are part of a select group of clubs that include our Oilers, The Atlanta Thrashers, The L.A. Kings, The New York Islanders, The Florida Panthers, The Columbus Blue Jackets, and finally, though not for long; The Chicago Blackhawks. (Anyone guess the common denominator?)

    These are all teams that have failed to post even ONE 100 point regular season this millenium…

    I know the word Millenium is somewhat dramatic… It's just that Lowe took over GM responsibilities in the year 2000…. and pretty much EVERY team in the NHL has taken turns having 100+ point campaigns; except for this sad little group of sub-par hockey clubs. (Even The Leafs have had Two 100 point seasons in the last eight years) Oilers fans keep showing up, like the masocists we are… alway salivating for more…People in Phoenix just go golfing.

  • David S

    LT busted out Stan Weir for his GDB. That's a sure sign things are getting serious. I'm frakkin' nervous about these next four games. We don't need "must wins" against guys like San Jose.

  • Robin Brownlee

    @ Peter Pan:
    Reporters don't go out for dinner or drinks with coaches or players — or Marc Crawford. There's a clear separation and pecking order within the travelling contingent*

    *Except when Ron Low was coaching and we'd go to Grumpy's in Montreal, Cristy's in Dallas, The Redhead in Chicago . . .