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‘Blood, sweat, tears’: Coyotes poised for new chapter with Alex Meruelo

Christian Dvorak #18 of the Arizona Coyotes celebrates with with teammates on the bench after scoring a goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the third period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on March 09, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Kings 4-2. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the spring of this year, Arizona Coyotes CEO Ahron Cohen and owner Andrew Barroway went to Los Angeles for a dinner meeting at Dal Rae Restaurant in Pico Rivera.

The meeting was with a businessman from the area, Alex Meruelo, whose roots as an entrepreneur in the Los Angeles and Las Vegas markets trace back to as early as his teenage years. The son of Cuban immigrants and hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Meruelo began a chain of pizza restaurants in L.A. as a young man.

One pizza pie led to another, and he now finds himself a billionaire, one who impressed Coyotes brass at the dinner meeting while in pursuit of becoming the owner of Arizona’s NHL franchise. Five months (or so) later, the team introduced him to the media on Thursday, replacing Barroway as the majority owner and ushering in an era prefaced with excitement and optimism.

The optimism started at Dal Rae.

“Just from that first moment, I saw this guy’s drive and his passion,” Cohen said Thursday, adding that at the meeting at Dal Rae, Meruelo was already discussing ways to improve the business that is the Coyotes, including reaching out better to the Hispanic community.

“But what I saw that was most profound is I saw somebody that wanted to win. Saw somebody that was going to do whatever it takes to succeed and make this organization and great, and that’s what we need.”

Meruelo’s desire to win shone through when, in front of an audience of reporters and his family during a press conference streamed live online and on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station, he said energetically:

“I sure as [expletive] want to win.”

Even when Meruelo’s ownership of the Coyotes was only expected — but not official — his impact on the team and its chances of winning was being felt. The team made a splash trade for winger Phil Kessel, whose salary cap hit put the Coyotes among the top of the NHL in roster payroll.

“It’s always difficult because no deal is ever finalized until it is,” general manager John Chayka said of how Meruelo affected offseason plans. “But through the NHL and working with Alex, it was clear that he was an important decision-maker here moving forward. So, had a lot of discussions with him on everything, not only this year, current year, but years moving forward. Yeah, he was key in the decisions we made.”

Chayka’s roster-building moves — like the trade for a badly-needed scorer in Kessel — and the early first impressions the general manager has made on Meruelo have been good enough to earn him praise from the new owner. Meruelo spoke highly of both Chayka and Cohen, but noted in particular that he likes the way Chayka sees things.

It’s hardly surprising. Chayka is a graduate from the business school at University of Western Ontario, but also shows in both words and actions that he’s a man of objectivity and analysis, not one of emotion or fleeting gut instinct. Meruelo described the way Chayka can articulate a predetermined strategy, and Chayka called Meruelo an “elite business mind.”

“I truly believe John and Ahron have done an amazing job,” Meruelo said before complimenting Chayka, and then saying, “I think it’s a winning combination. I am sold.”

He ought to be, given his aspiration:

“My goal here with the rest of the team, the executives, the players, the coaches — I will not stop until we bring a Stanley Cup to the Valley,” he said. “That is my goal, my commitment and hopefully my promise to keep to all of you guys.”

Winning a Stanley Cup comes at a cost, both monetarily and otherwise. But hopefully Meruelo can help cover some of that.

“As a manager, yeah, it just gives you a lot more options, gives you a lot more resources to try to win a Stanley Cup, which is a very difficult thing to do with 30 other teams trying to do the same thing,” Chayka said.

“I think if you look at his resume, he’s always invested in his businesses. Now, he runs it like a business. He refers to it as ‘smart money’ and he and I are on the same page with that. I think if you’re trying to accomplish a goal of winning a Stanley Cup, you have to be very thoughtful about things. He’s not going to come in and be wasteful.”

Indeed, Meruelo must treat his new business as just that: a business.

“What I’ve always found, in my years of doing business for the last 40 years, I have this knack for picking up businesses that are broken, losing money and turning them around and make them successful and very proud to be a part of. I don’t see the Coyotes are in that situation, but they have financial problems as we all know. It’s not a secret.

“But I’m very committed to this state, to the Valley, to the fans of Arizona, to the team of Arizona, the residents, I’m committed to stay here. To the residents, I will do everything I can in my heart and my hard work to make sure that we can make it viable.”

So, what about that whole arena situation? The Coyotes are on a year-to-year lease at Gila River Arena, but it’s well-known that they’d prefer a new venue that fits better for their goals.

“We lose quite a bit of money here,” Meruelo said. “It’s difficult because our fanbase is more in the [East] Valley, it’s not so much out here. The corporate sponsors aren’t really out here. We don’t really have a long-term lease. All those are really big challenges that I have to address and we have to address as a team.

“But I am committed to making it work, whether it be here or someplace in the Valley. I want to be part of this state. That is my sole interest. I will do everything I possibly can to make it happen.”

Two things are certain: 1) The Coyotes’ press conference on Thursday was filled with optimism and excitement, and 2) Meruelo’s credentials are good, but he will have to prove to fans that his impact on the organization is real, sustainable, and sufficient for the tall tasks ahead.

In the meantime, there’s relief to be found in the conclusion of what’s been many months of rumors and reports.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into this for a very long period of time,” Cohen said. “This could’ve twisted and turned in a lot of different directions and [I’m] just incredibly proud and thankful that we ended up where we did, because I can safely say to our entire fanbase that this organization is on the right track and is poised to do great things ahead.

“I take a lot of pride in that because myself and John Chayka, this is our baby. And we’ve put our hearts and souls into this thing and want to make sure that this is successful moving forward. It feels great to know that we’re now in a position where we can really move forward and be successful.”

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