Coyotes mending relationship with fans


Anthony LeBlanc isn’t quite a household name in Arizona -- he still gets asked for identification at the grocery store -- but in hockey circles, the new owner of the Phoenix Coyotes is a pretty big deal.

In the short period of time since LeBlanc and the eight other individuals who make up the IceArizona ownership group rescued the Coyotes from oblivion last summer, the circle of fans in Arizona has begun to grow appreciably.

After four plus years of being wards of the NHL, the Coyotes' per-game revenues have grown by 15 percent over the last full NHL season (2011-12) LeBlanc told ESPN.com Monday prior to the start of the NHL board of governors meetings. Sponsorships have been robust and there have been instances of competition amongst sponsors wanting to be connected with the hockey club, he said.

Along with a surge in ticket sales, the sales and rentals of suites are at an unprecedented level for Jobing.com Arena, and the buzz around the team has shifted from being almost exclusively about "where will this team end up?" to actual on-ice issues like the play of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and whether they can make it back to the playoffs in the tough-as-nails Pacific Division.

“Everything is dramatically up,” LeBlanc said.

It’s all rather remarkable given that LeBlanc and his group didn’t formally take over the team until early August. In that two-month period before the start of the season, they worked out a new concessions contract and reworked their local television deal.

And of course until the City of Glendale approved a new lease agreement with the group in early July, the team’s very future in the desert was uncertain at best.

“That was about as close to moving as it could have been,” LeBlanc said.

“It was definitely difficult but we got it done.”

Now the group has been working steadily to repair long-fractured relationships with fans and sponsors. It won't happen overnight -- the team still ranks last in the NHL in average home attendance -- but the group continues to mend fences with a long-neglected fan base.

“As I often say, we have a lot of wood to chop,” LeBlanc said.

The team is planning a big pre-Olympic event with a many members of the 1980 gold medal U.S. team being flown in for a game against Chicago.

There are tailgating parties before some home games which are growing in popularity, especially with the owners themselves.

“George Gosbee sets up a grill himself,” LeBlanc said referring to the Calgary businessman who is a key part of the ownership group.

LeBlanc can most nights be found roaming the concourses between periods talking to fans. Sometimes they’ll offer complaints about long lines for hotdogs or having to pay for parking, but more often than not there are words of thanks for ending the perpetual concern that the team was going to pack up and ride off into the hockey sunset.

“At the end of the day, we’re positively giddy,” he said.

And when was the last time you saw "giddy" and the Phoenix Coyotes in the same sentence?