It's hard to blame Arizonans for not fully embracing the Phoenix Coyotes. They are, after all, a transplant from Winnipeg, and save for the first few seasons they have really struggled sustaining any real success.
Add the multitude of questions surrounding the franchise in recent years and you can start to see how the team's foggy situation made it difficult to see what was happening on the ice. Fortunately for the team those questions are starting to be answered in a very positive way.
Will the team be moving back to Canada? No.
Is the team able and/or willing to spend the money to win or are they content with just putting a semi-competitive roster on the ice? Well, from early indications the answers are yes and yes.
Even then, can hockey even survive in the desert? That's what we're finding out.
Fourteen years after moving to the desert the team may finally have the opportunity to captivate and grow its fan base. Currently the 6 seed in the Western Conference playoff race, the Desert Dogs are the only Valley team looking at a postseason run. Their success combined with the growing apathy towards the other three pro teams would seem to be the perfect storm for them to win over notoriously fickle fans.
And don't think they are oblivious to that fact.
"It's talked about so I think everyone understands," said forward, captain and longtime Coyote Shane Doan.
"I think if we can build on kind of what happened at the end of last year and get some momentum going in the second half of this year you'd hope you can [gain traction] in the Valley."
The unfortunate part is the fans have hardly noticed even as the team appears primed for another playoff run. Through 22 home games the team is drawing just 10,820 fans per night, filling up 62 percent of Jobing.com Arena, good enough for 29th in the NHL.
Doan, like the team's General Manager Don Maloney, believes that winning will fill up the arena, as was evidenced late last season. Maloney, who made sure to mention the fact that the team has had some nice crowds mixed in with the sparse ones this season, said the Coyotes can only worry about themselves when it comes to attracting fans instead of expecting them to just watch some hockey because the other local teams aren't faring so well.
"We just know we have to play well to get people to come see us play," he said. "Whether the Suns, the Diamondbacks or the Cardinals - it doesn't really affect how we're doing."
Maloney, who said he is a fan of the Valley teams and wants them to do well, understands how winning brings increased attention from the media and the fans, which help to create the necessary atmosphere in which the players are expected to perform.
"Until you get a full house or a fan base that are demanding performance you have to find ways to create it internally," he said of the expectations, "the more support, the better the fan base we get, the more the expectations are raised, I think it creates a pressure here that it's not just enough to show up and perform, it's show up and win."
However, it is not as if the Coyotes franchise is new to winning, though for new fans it may seem to be the case. The team reached the playoffs in five of its first six years in Arizona only to fall short of the postseason the following six campaigns.
"You do nine years in a row of kind of struggling, you have one good year it's kind of a wait and see," Doan said, "and on top of that you add the fact of the whole ownership thing and you're waiting to hear, that makes it difficult."
But at least, for now, the ownership situation seems to not only be settled but in great shape. Matthew Hulsizer is set to take the reins and will do more than just keep the Coyotes in the Valley. As Maloney puts it, he's taking over with an understanding that money may have to be spent to have a winner.
"They have the wherewithal behind them to invest," he said. "I'm very optimistic that this group understands sports and our marketplace and say hey, if we have an opportunity to pick up an impact player that the resources are there to do it."
That right there has to be music to the fans' ears as frugal spending is seen as a key reason for the struggles of the Diamondbacks, Cardinals, and Suns. Finally an owner who understands that it costs money to have a winner? Could it be? Maloney feels, as seems to be the case, the fans are in wait-and-see mode.
"I don't think getting to the playoffs…that's the minimal expectation," he said. "We need to win in the playoffs - that's what we have to do, and show people ‘yeah, they're legit, they're real, they have a chance to win, let's get behind them.'"
Will 2011 be remembered as the year when hockey finally blossomed in the desert? It may have to be, as the Coyotes are not likely to see a sports landscape like this one again anytime soon.