Gary Bettman, Alex Meruelo blame Tempe voters for Coyotes’ relocation

Apr 19, 2024, 4:01 PM

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo, whose hockey franchise is now as frozen as the ice they once played on, referenced a Kansas City vote over a sales tax that would ensure the two-time champion Chiefs remain in the county for the next 25 years.

And then they ultimately blamed a Tempe public vote for souring the timeline and their ability to build a hockey arena in Arizona, leading the franchise’s hockey operations to be sold to a group in Utah this week.

“Even though you didn’t ask me the question and even though it’s not a regret, my biggest disappointment is the referendum failed in Tempe,” Bettman told a reporter who asked Meruelo if he had regrets. “I’ve never seen a more public-private win-win than that was, not the least of which was the landfill is still there and was going to be there a long time.

“There was an opportunity for it to be funded privately to clean it up. That disappointed me. Of all the things we had to deal with over the last 27 years, I found that the most disappointing.”

It’s true that there were no sales taxes involved in the three Tempe propositions that failed in May 2023. It was a strong 56-57% majority against the measure, even if the Coyotes owner said he would privately fund the development.

But it is telling that was about as bad of a defeat as the Kansas City vote of 58% to 42% — when sales taxes would have impacted an entire locale.

Meruelo said he personally knocked on doors and poured $7 million into a campaign to win the vote in Tempe.

He called reflecting on the plan to win the Tempe vote “Monday-night quarterbacking” and said the Coyotes believed until the last minute they would win “by a landslide.”

“Can you please ask Kansas City? They didn’t have theirs passed either,” Meruelo said. “And they won two Super Bowls.

“We gave it everything I had.”

But just as Bettman and Meruelo said they didn’t understand losing a public vote to clear the way for a pro hockey arena and more in Tempe, they offered the exact reason why that result should not have been surprising.

At a press conference in Phoenix on Friday, Bettman clarified and answered questions for Meruelo with frequency, a sign of his support despite the owner being forced to sell the hockey operations to Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith.

Meruelo hasn’t wavered in his desire to rebuild a hockey team — and first, its arena that’s self-funded — in Arizona. It’s obvious Bettman is supporting him.

The commissioner said the contractual agreement forces Meruelo to remain owner five years after a stadium project is completed, avoiding the possibility the owner could flip another pro hockey team for more money made. Meruelo spoke with confidence about how he built up the hockey operations department in less-than-ideal circumstances. Again, that’s the one he was just forced to sell because he couldn’t name a date of when the team would have a new arena.

“Absolutely, we can do it again,” he said of making a promising hockey team in Phoenix.

Obviously, Meruelo will have to win a June 27 land auction for his prospected plot of land at Scottsdale Road and the Loop 101 near Desert Ridge Marketplace.

Then, the city of Phoenix will have to offer support as he aims to label his potential plot of land as a “theme park district.” That could come with a sales tax in its own footprint only. It’s not clear how Phoenix views the potential project, or what hurdles could come about. The mayor of Scottsdale, which is just across Scottsdale Road, has openly opposed the project to some degree, making sure to put the onus on Phoenix to meet his demands.

Arizona Sports confirmed that the Coyotes met with a city leader Thursday and expressed the desire to win the auction. A meeting between Meruelo and Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego is expected at the end of the month, a spokesperson told AZCentral. It would require approval by city and county officials.

“If there’s outright hostility to another arena and there are forces at bay that are going to do everything to prevent it, that’ll be a problem,” Bettman admitted. “But I don’t doubt Alex’s commitment to try and deal with all of those head-on.”

There is also the complicating factor of an agreement from 1989 with the Phoenix Suns and their current arena that limits the city of Phoenix’s involvement in aiding a competing arena.

“I am aware of some of that,” Meruelo said. “This is different because this is not — the money the Suns requested was tax-payer dollars. This is not that, this is different.”

Bettman added: “This is all private.”

What did the commissioner say about what if Meruelo’s plan hits speedbumps?

“We’re going to continue to monitor to see progress. Our agreement basically says we need about a year, year-and-a-half notice to reactivate the team,” Bettman said. “It doesn’t have to take five years. … Obviously, the most concrete thing will be a structure coming out of the ground.”

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Gary Bettman, Alex Meruelo blame Tempe voters for Coyotes’ relocation