As the battle for the soul of the Phoenix Coyotes begins in U.S. bankruptcy court, we've heard from many sides in the debate over their future.
There's the "NHL's got no clue what's good for it" side. There's the "Phoenix fans don't care" side. There's the Gary Bettman isn't the villain side. There's the Gary Bettman is the villain side. There's the "casting this ordeal as a soap opera" side. And hey, there's even a factual, legal analysis side to it as well. (A really good read from Jim Graham on The Bleacher Report, by the way.)
Then there's Lauren Robb's side. You see, Robb has a rather unique perspective on the Coyotes franchise relocating -- having already experience it once before.
Robb is the proprietor of Winnipeg Jets Online, a shrine to the small market Canadian franchise that gave the world Dale Hawerchuk and moved to Phoenix in 1996. His Web site has fought for years to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg with little success; but seeing it leave Glendale for Canada would be a nice consolation prize.
"No matter what we did, it wasn't enough. And Bettman was too quick to say, 'It can't work there, so let's move it,'" said Robb. "Now with Phoenix, or really any of the other Sun Belt teams, he's so resistant to letting them go or revoking [their franchise] or even swallowing his pride and saying, 'My little plan didn't work.'"
Robb isn't necessarily a Phoenix basher. He appreciated the team's attempts to remember the Jets' legacy by honoring former players and coming to Winnipeg for exhibition games.
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When they left in 1996, unable to compete financially as the NHL expanded into new markets and salaries rose, Robb said he never imagined a scenario in which the now-Coyotes would end up filing Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court.
"No. Completely none. You hear that they're moving down to the states, and the states are so big. Nothing fails in the States, right? At least back then," he said.
Especially when Bettman appeared convinced that relocating the Jets to the U.S. was the best decision for the franchise and the League, going forward.
"Essentially, he wanted to move the team where the money was. There was no money in Canada, back then anyway," said Robb. "So you take a team away, put it in the States where it will do well. Except it has to compete with MLB and the NFL and NASCAR and the NBA and poker and bowling and golf ... everything's that more important than a game played in snow and ice."
That the Coyotes could move back in the ice and snow of a city like Hamilton makes Robb happy as a Canadian hockey fan.
There's a bit of revenge, and bittersweet irony, in "taking one back" from the States.
"That's the thing," he said. "[Like] if the Avalanche were to fold and go back to Quebec. We actually have one of those kinds of stories now. A Cinderella story."
If it's a Cinderella story, then it's obviously BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie as the Fairy Godmother; although Robb sees him as something a bit loftier.
"I think of him as the Canadian god," he said, "for the sense that he's fighting this hard to bring one more team to Canada. We have how many teams in the States, and we have six in Canada? And the ones in Canada pull in, what, 30 percent of the revenue for the League?
"What confuses me is that you have a billionaire in Jim Balsillie who's willing to throw down $212.5 million on a stinking team that hasn't done much in the NHL since 1979, and [Bettman] is still hesitant to say, 'That's a wicked idea. Let's go with that.'"
Like other Jets fans, Robb's bitterness towards Bettman and the NHL is palpable. But so is his faith that the tide is turning, and other teams that began their lives in the Sun Belt will eventually migrate north. Winnipeg, for example, continues to hold discussions with the NHL on a semi-regular basis, he said; just not with the public bluster or insurgency of a Jim Balsillie.
Robb's not upset to see the Team Formerly Known As The Jets move to another part of Canada; he's just remaining as patient as he's been since 1996.
"I know we have a history with this franchise," said Robb. "But let him take that team. We know there are other that are failing.