ARIZONA COYOTES

Alex Meruelo, Coyotes made it abundantly clear they don’t deserve an NHL return

Jun 24, 2024, 12:50 PM | Updated: 1:27 pm

Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo joins Burns & Gambo in studio after team is sold to Utah group o...

Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo joins Burns & Gambo in studio after team is sold to Utah group on Thursday, April 19, 2024. (Screenshot/Arizona Sports video)

(Screenshot/Arizona Sports video)

Pro hockey does not belong in the desert. Not at this moment and not until a competent, caring owner not named Alex Meruelo can resuscitate the Arizona Coyotes or, seeming more likely, start a completely new franchise.

The Coyotes can get credit for building grassroots hockey — where it’s served youth players — but nearly three decades of incompetence at the ownership level has turned away would-be fans and done a disservice to the ones still trying to find any reason to believe the NHL should remain in the Phoenix area. Those are two different things, something the Coyotes forgot in projecting they would easily win over Tempe voters to build a new arena there last May.

The Arizona State Land Department on Friday decided that it would require an ownership group led by Meruelo to first land a special use permit before having the ability to win a tract of land at the northwest corner of Scottsdale Road and the Loop 101.

Instead of responding with disappointment about the decision — one they should have seen coming — the Coyotes again got defensive, isolated themselves and attacked the groups who they must work with to acquire the land.

They said they would explore legal action instead of doing the easiest thing: Say they would succeed in acquiring the special use permit to clear a way for the auction to eventually take place.

They opted out of taking the easiest path forward to be petty. Worst of all, the Coyotes seemed surprised, lashing out without taking any accountability.

That right there is why Meruelo has not garnered goodwill. It’s a pretty blatant example of why the team’s apparent desire to unthaw the franchise down the road will fail.

“No one should be surprised at this ownership groups’ incompetence and duplicity,” Tempe councilman Randy Keating told Front Office Sports. “They were told several times what they needed to do to move forward with the auction by the City of Phoenix and not only chose not to do so, but then had the gull to cast blame. The call is, and always has been, coming from inside the house. Fans deserve so much better.”

The state land department’s decision Friday was not about stopping hockey in the desert, like some conspiracy theorists believe. Maybe it worked in concert with the city of Phoenix, a separate entity that by the way has only gone as far to say there will be no special tax abatements if the Coyotes do find land to build a new arena.

The land department does not want to sell a seemingly important piece of developable land to an untrustworthy ownership group that wasn’t wanted in Glendale (the city) or Tempe (the voters). And the ASLD especially should not have if it caught any sense that the city of Phoenix wasn’t going to clear the way for the Coyotes to develop the land. Or if it thought the Coyotes might not have the easiest financial path to develop the land before getting to building.

That’s pretty darn fair.

Surely there are politics at play, a reason why Phoenix at the leadership level hasn’t done what Tempe’s city council once did: Publicly promote the benefits of landing a new arena.

Mayor Kate Gallego’s spokesperson told AZCentral that a pro sports arena is not allowed under the existing zoning. The Coyotes’ former zoning lawyer, Nick Wood of Snell & Wilmer, said in April that he believed rezoning was not necessary.

There are nuances and complications in those two messages that don’t jive.

What is clear is that zoning semantics probably could be cleared up if there was motivation for Phoenix to bring the NHL back within its boundaries.

Why wouldn’t Phoenix want the Coyotes?

For starters, look at Meruelo’s history and reputation.

We also don’t know what the city’s economic experts think a 15,000-plus seat arena up north would do to a still-developing downtown with two pro-sports-slash-concert venues. Downtown Phoenix is already home to an NBA arena that was just refurbished and an MLB ballpark needing a refresh ASAP. The D-backs are attempting to find an avenue toward upgrading their county-owned stadium so they don’t need to find a new home, a much more expensive option.

So here’s where we are: You can blame Glendale city leaders for forcing the Coyotes out. You can blame Tempe voters for not welcoming them in. Blame the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman, the latter who deserves massive credit for somehow convincing an owner living in a false reality to sell his hockey team to a Utah ownership group, lending an unlikely lifeline for Meruelo to restart the franchise. That was quite the threading of the needle. Sure, you can blame Phoenix for not doing everything in its power to bring back the NHL team.

But at some point, save the conspiracies that span multiple cities and the freakin’ NHL that didn’t want this version of the Coyotes in Arizona. Blame Alex Meruelo.

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Alex Meruelo, Coyotes made it abundantly clear they don’t deserve an NHL return