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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Coyotes’ Latest Setback Casts Doubt on the NHL’s Future in Arizona

  • Arizona cancels auction for land the Coyotes owner was seeking for a new team.
  • The team says it 'seriously jeopardizes' chances of the NHL returning to the desert.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, a Coyotes spokesperson told Front Office Sports that the team was “committed to winning the land auction,” a pivotal step for securing any future of an NHL team in Arizona.

Roughly an hour later, though, the Arizona State Land Department canceled Thursday’s auction—a move that intensified doubts over Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo’s ability to relaunch the dormant franchise. The Coyotes, in a statement later Friday, said that the cancellation of the auction “seriously jeopardizes the future of NHL hockey returning to the desert.”

But even if the land auction proceeded—one that was expected to fetch around double the $68.5 million appraised value of the land—and Meruelo won the auction, he still faced plenty of obstacles before the Coyotes would be reborn. 

“Hopefully, he will finally bow out so that the NHL can begin discussions with other real potential owners,” former Coyotes executive Rich Nairn wrote on X

Meruelo, under pressure from the NHL, sold all but the team’s name in April to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, a $1.2 billion deal that relocated the team to Salt Lake City. But Meruelo was given the exclusive rights to NHL hockey in the Phoenix area as part of the transaction as long as he built a suitable arena to bring the Coyotes back as an expansion franchise within five years. 

There were whispers around the NHL and in Arizona that Meruelo lacked the allies to make that a reality—and the Coyotes didn’t win the hearts and minds with their statement that included the team was “exploring all of our legal options” over the canceled auction.

That didn’t seem to nudge the Arizona State Land Department when it came how soon the auction would be back on. 

“We don’t yet know if or when it will be rescheduled,” a land department spokesperson told FOS via email on Saturday. 

What Latest Blow Means

This would be the third major setback for Meruelo over the last 13 months. In May 2023, Tempe voters rejected three ballot propositions that would have cleared the way for a new home of the Coyotes as part of an entertainment district. That meant the Coyotes would head into their second season at Arizona State’s Mullett Arena with no solidified plans to get out of the 5,000-seat venue. 

The Coyotes filed for an application for 200 acres of land—that included the acreage in the canceled auction—in June 2023. But when infrastructure costs exceeded projections, the Coyotes yanked that application and narrowed down a proposal to 110 acres, delaying the land auction for several months. 

This latest setback could, at long last, be Meruelo’s final one.

“No one should be surprised at this ownership group’s incompetence and duplicity,” Tempe councilman Randy Keating tells FOS. “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.”

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