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.

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.

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.

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’.

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.