Getting the Phoenix Coyotes’ financial ship in order was the easy part.
That Anthony LeBlanc and his partners could handle.
It’s the on-ice stuff the ownership can’t control. With the National Hockey League team set to resume play on Feb. 25 after the Olympic break, the long suffering Coyotes (27-21-10) are tied for the final Western Conference playoff berth, battling the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars for the right to move into post-season play.
LeBlanc, who joined forces with Canadian George Gosbee and seven other investors to buy the Coyotes for US$170 million, said ironing out a television contract and lease agreements with the city of Glendale, Ariz. were not nearly as nerve-wracking as the nail-biting way the Coyotes have been winning games this season.
“The best part is now actually the worst part of it and that’s watching the games, being at the games as an owner,” he said Wednesday, home in Thunder Bay for a political fundraising dinner for a local Conservative Party candidate.
“It’s amazing how it really takes the fun out of it, to be quite honest. You’re just on pins and needles and I never thought I could be more of a sports fan or committed to watch a game. But it really is exhilarating to watch your team play.”
LeBlanc, the Coyotes’ president and CEO, said it’s certainly been an exciting few months since the NHL’s board of governors approved his group’s bid last August to buy the bankrupt franchise, which had been run by the league since former owner Jerry Moyes walked away in 2009.
“The first couple of months of ownership was a little bit hectic,” the Thunder Bay-born LeBlanc said.
“We had a lot of business things to take care of. We went through a new television contract locally. We had to seek bids for a new concessions partner and a whole lot of other things we were working on in the marketing side,” he said.
The owners know they’re not going to make money in the short term. They’ve projected losses for the first three seasons, though nowhere near the reported $389 the team lost between 2004 and 2009.
LeBlanc , who joked he’s had plenty of “old friends” come out of the woodwork since assuming control of the NHL team, said he expects average attendance to hover around the 14,000 mark by season’s end, which was more than their initial projection.
Combined with an improved product on the ice, he’s convinced the business model they set out can work in the Arizona desert, a region with a limited hockey history, mostly at the minor pro level before the soon-to-be-rebranded Phoenix Coyotes arrived.
“We feel strongly we are bringing this to the level that we need it to, which is profitability. We don’t have any other plans that we’re looking at right now,” he said, asked about whether they’d consider moving the franchise if profits aren’t realized in three years time.
LeBlanc also said he’d leave it up to league officials to discuss potential expansion, with Quebec and Seattle leading the charge to acquire NHL teams.
With the Olympics in full swing, LeBlanc said he’s been cheering on Canada and Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith, watching the final seven minute of Canada’s win over Latvia Wednesday before starting the interview with local media – a mutually agreed upon delay.
He’s not sure how he feels about NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Games.
He sees both sides of the issue. For the fans, it’s great, but for the business, shutting things down for nearly three weeks can be disruptive.
LeBlanc also said he’s been keeping a close eye on Thunder Bay’s event centre talk and said if the Winnipeg Jets do move their farm team to the city it would be a great thing. The Coyotes are focused on their American Hockey League team in Portland, Me. and aren’t really interested in considering a possible move to Thunder Bay if the Jets deal doesn’t pan out.
“You can never say what the future might bring, but right now we’re just focused on our affiliation in Portland.”
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