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Coyotes ready to play with new owners

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The Phoenix Coyotes' four-year ownership saga is over.

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The papers are signed. The NHL has approved the deal. The team's fans, players and front office can finally relax.

``Today is about turning our collective focus to the strong future of the Coyotes here in Arizona and clearly stop talking about ownership questions,'' Anthony LeBlanc, the Coyotes' new CEO and alternate governor, said Tuesday at Jobing.com Arena.

``It's time to stop talking about arena leases, it's time to stop talking about financing options and where the team will play next year, and to focus on what is important to all of us, and that is what happens on the ice.''

The Coyotes completed an arduous process to find an owner on Monday, when LeBlanc, George Gosbee and the rest of IceArizona completed their purchase of the franchise from the NHL.

The league's Board of Governors then approved the sale to the Canadian investors, triggering a 15-year, $225 million lease agreement for Jobing.com Arena between the City of Glendale and Renaissance and Sports Entertainment, IceArizona's managing partner.

The official announcement came on Tuesday, with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joining Gosbee, LeBlanc, members of the Glendale city council - the four who voted in favor of the lease agreement - and employees from across the Coyotes' organization, including general manager Don Maloney and defenseman Derek Morris.

``This is a day that we believed since the beginning of all these proceedings four years ago should take place because it would be the right thing for the great fans that we have here in the Valley of the Sun,'' Bettman said. ``It's important and has been important to the City of Glendale. And it was important to the National Hockey League, because we always believed in this market.''

Now it's up to IceArizona to make it work in a market that tends to be winner-driven.

A big step is keeping the Coyotes competitive.

Even when Phoenix reached the playoffs the first two years without an owner, support fluctuated, from half-capacity crowds at Jobing.com Arena at times during the regular season to raucous support once the postseason started.

The Coyotes showed what the Phoenix market could be like two years ago, when they used a blue-collar mentality to make a late-season push toward their first division title in 33 years as an NHL franchise. The desert dogs brought fans along with them on the bandwagon as they kept winning, becoming the darlings of the Valley as they marched toward the Western Conference finals for the first time.

The NHL lockout, which stretched into January, dampened some of the Coyotes' momentum last season and an inconsistent performance, one that left them four points short of the West's final playoff spot, didn't help.

Even before its deal was complete, RSE started taking steps toward making the Coyotes better.

Maloney, assistant general manager Brad Treliving and coach Dave Tippett, along with his staff, all signed long-term deals to stay. Goalie Mike Smith, who had been hesitant to sign with ownership up in the air, signed a five-year deal before Glendale's city council had approved the lease agreement.

Once the lease was done, IceArizona loosened the purse strings a bit for Maloney and the front office, allowing them to make a big free-agent splash by signing top-line forward Mike Ribeiro.

And, as the franchise moves forward, the new ownership group has vowed to give the Coyotes more financial flexibility. Phoenix still won't be one of the top-spending teams in the NHL, but it'll certainly have more resources available than it did before.

``We're definitely planning to increase the player payroll and we're going to increase it year over year, but the reality is we're not a club that plans to spend to the ceiling,'' LeBlanc said. ``With Don Maloney's stewardship of the franchise, we expect to continue making this a very exciting, very competitive hockey team.''

The new ownership group also will try to expand the fan base.

The team's name will be changed to the Arizona Coyotes sometime after next season and IceArizona will work to expand the franchise's marketing efforts, something that had been limited while it was being run by the NHL.

``For the first time in years with this franchise, there's no question it will be tied to Arizona; we have good, strong local ownership,'' LeBlanc said. ``Quite frankly, it will be boots to the ground marketing of getting this product out.''

It should be easier now that the biggest step - securing an owner - is out of the way.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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