Anthony LeBlanc stayed the course even when his goal seemed impossible to reach. Four years and thousands of airline miles later, he's finally putting his big plan in motion to turn the Phoenix Coyotes into the type of first-rate and profitable NHL franchise he always believed it could be.
Once his immigration paperwork goes through, LeBlanc will add president and CEO to a title that already includes alternate governor of the Coyotes. He plans to move to the Phoenix area full-time and recently gave up his season tickets to the Ottawa Senators.
He's all in.
"I'm a Canadian kid, and being involved with the NHL is something that the average Canadian boy would do anything he can to be a part of," LeBlanc told NHL.com. "But from the moment we first started looking at this franchise four years ago, we were intrigued at the opportunity. We felt it was an asset that hadn't been managed properly on the business side, and we always felt Phoenix could absolutely be a hockey market."
The question is why -- as in why was LeBlanc so persistent in his efforts to be involved in owning the Coyotes, and why does he so staunchly believe in the market when the Coyotes have historically lost money and struggled to gain a major presence in the Valley of the Sun?
Lightning assistant coach George Gwozdecky is new to the NHL, but he spoke about a time when he used to work with NHL players:
"Way back when I was an assistant coach at Michigan State, I had opportunity to work at a summer camp run by [coach] Ron Mason. They would have weeks set aside in the late summer for pre-training camp training for many of the great pros of that era. Guy Carbonneau, Al Secord, Bob Probert, Pierre Mondou and Doug Risebrough would come to this camp to not only improve their skating, but to improve their conditioning. As a young assistant coach, those first couple of days, you talk about star-struck. I mean, that was an era I will never forget."
Coyotes alternate governor Anthony LeBlanc talking about the emotions he expects to feel as a first-time sports executive watching his team play:
"I'm a crazy sports fan. I'm a longtime season ticket holder of the Ottawa Senators and New York Jets. I get really into it. My mother would always make fun of me and ask me, 'Why do you care so much?' I've started thinking about it, when this team starts playing, God help us if we lose a couple of games in a row. I don't think I'll be able to sleep. I think that's part of the fun. I have talked with other owners and they've told me the same thing, 'You've never experienced anything like it.'"
"Nobody seems to have a problem with the concept of certain non-traditional hockey markets being hockey markets like San Jose, Dallas and Los Angeles," LeBlanc said. "My view is if those markets can be considered hockey markets, Phoenix has something that those markets don't have, which is the sheer number of northerners that spend the winter months in the area. You don't get that in San Jose or Dallas.
"This was an intriguing opportunity [in 2009] and it's only become a better opportunity as the last four years have progressed for a number of factors: the improvement on the ice that the team has had; the improvements in the overall macroeconomics that so affected the region in '09 and are so much better now; and the League is so strong now that we just want to be a partner with it."
LeBlanc and business partner Daryl Jones first got involved in trying to buy the Coyotes from the NHL in July 2009. Their efforts failed then, so they attempted to be minority partners with Matthew Hulsizer, who also couldn't complete his deal to purchase the team. LeBlanc was counseling Greg Jamison until his attempt to buy the team fell through in January.
At that point he and Jones decided to "take one final run at this," LeBlanc said. Jones convinced Calgary businessman George Gosbee to jump on board and write the biggest check, and last week the three of them along with eight other investors that make up IceArizona Acquisition Co. LLC officially took over the franchise that has been held together by the League since former owner Jerry Moyes put it into bankruptcy four years ago.
Gosbee is the new executive chairman and governor.
LeBlanc and his partners are already putting their message out into the community. Their slogan is "Here to Stay," and LeBlanc said they're attempting to partner with a local advertising agency on a franchise rebrand they want to have in place by next month.
He said they're not looking to change the uniforms or the logo (though the team will change it name to the Arizona Coyotes after the 2013-14 season). Instead, LeBlanc said the rebrand is about changing the culture and the attitude surrounding the franchise.
"It's time to stop apologizing for what's happened over the past four years," LeBlanc said. "It's a hard stop, a new beginning."
Part of the rebrand is overhauling the in-game experience at Jobing.com Arena.
"It's no disrespect, but the franchise was owned by the NHL for the past four years so it's not like they were putting the focus on how do we increase the points of presence on food and beverage and retail, how do we make the in-game entertainment more entertaining," he said. "We want to make it so when people show up for opening night on Oct. 3 they immediately walk in and say, 'Wow, we see a difference.' "
LeBlanc said he's aware some fans may be leery about jumping on board because included in IceArizona's deal to purchase the team is an out-clause that would allow the ownership group to break its 15-year lease at Jobing.com Arena and either move or sell the franchise in five years if its losses reach at least $50 million.
He said he fielded questions about the out-clause during an open house for season ticket holders and prospective season ticket holders last week, but once he explained that it would require IceArizona to lose a hard $50 million to trigger the out-clause, the fans were satisfied that it was not an issue.
"If anybody thinks that we got into this with the desire or hope to lose $50 million, they truly need to think about that," LeBlanc said. "Look, this is an investment and in any investment you try to protect yourself if things go completely wrong. We don't expect they will and that is not the reason we're getting involved with this franchise, but there has been historical losses and we have to protect ourselves at the end of the day."
He clearly doesn't envision a scenario in which he or his business partners will have to worry about that five years from now.
"This team is here to stay," LeBlanc said.
Gwozdecky's blessing in disguise
When Denver University fired coach George Gwozdecky on April 1 after 19 successful seasons, including back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005, his friends and coaching associates tried to convince him that he'd land on his feet, that the betrayal he was feeling would fade and he'd find a new challenge in hockey.
They knew what they were talking about.
If Gwozdecky, 60, hadn't lost his job, he wouldn't have landed his first NHL coaching gig late last week, when the Tampa Bay Lightning hired him as an assistant coach in charge of the forwards and power play.
"There were so many people at the time [I was fired] who said there is a reason this is happening and this is going to be something you look back on as a real blessing in disguise," Gwozdecky told NHL.com on Tuesday. "It's hard when you're going through it at the time to understand it. You're emotionally wounded. You're being rejected by someone you have cared about for an awful long time. But as many of my associates and peers told me at the time, they said this is going to work out really well and they're exactly right."
Gwozdecky wasn't planning on moving to the NHL. He sought out opportunities in college hockey, but none fit. By June, he was preparing to stay in the college game as an analyst as he had been approached by CBS Sports, the Big Ten Network and Root Sports to be a color commentator.
His approach changed shortly after the NHL Draft, when Lightning coach Jon Cooper called Gwozdecky to ask if he'd be interested in chatting about the opening on his staff. Cooper and Gwozdecky got to know each other when the former was coaching in the United States Hockey League and the latter was recruiting some of his players for Denver.
"It wasn't that I sought him out, but when he did call and we started talking, it went from intrigue to interest to excitement," Gwozdecky said.
Gwozdecky said his biggest challenge will be developing personal relationships with the Lightning players, namely Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, so they can trust each other. He already has one with defenseman Matt Carle, who played for Gwozdecky at Denver.
MacTavish wants to believe 'calculated gamble' will pay off
When Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish reached out to defenseman Denis Grebeshkov's representatives earlier this summer, he did so knowing the reports about the 29-year-old's three-season tenure in the KHL were enough to damage the career and reputation of the player who had 39 points in 72 games for the Oilers in 2008-09.
MacTavish still signed Grebeshkov to a one-year contract worth a reported $1.5 million on July 18, taking an admitted risk on a guy he used to coach (2007-10) and still believes in despite his struggles over the past three seasons in his native Russia.
"I think he was drowning as a player over there," MacTavish told NHL.com. "The expectation would have been that Denis was going to put up huge numbers, and maybe that's not the strength of his game to be a big point producer. I think there's stability in coming back to a team that he knows well and to an organization that is going to support him. He's on a one-year deal and he's got a lot at stake. I like those situations."
Considered to be an offensive defenseman, Grebeshkov hasn't scored a goal since the 2010-11 season and had 34 points in 144 KHL games. He languished so much that he didn't make the cut for Russia's entry into the past two IIHF World Championships. Nor was Grebeshkov invited to Russia's Olympic orientation camp this summer.
"It's a tough league, that KHL," MacTavish said. "There's a lot of ambivalence over there. I think Denis was guilty of some of that."
MacTavish remembers Grebeshkov as being a skilled blueliner who was guilty of making some risky and questionable decisions with the puck, especially through the middle of the ice. In his Edmonton re-run, the Oilers need to see the skillset Grebeshkov displayed in his first tour, but with a greater attention to detail and intelligence.
This and that
* TSN's Darren Dreger reported last month that defenseman Cody Franson, a restricted free agent, could be trade bait for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who with roughly $5 million remaining under the salary cap according to CapGeek likely do not have enough space to sign both him and restricted free agent center Nazem Kadri without other dominos falling.
It's understandable why the Maple Leafs would look to trade Franson rather than Kadri, a productive No. 2 center they hope develops instant chemistry with David Clarkson, but dealing the 26-year-old Franson would be a blow to Toronto's already thin blue line. Franson is coming off his most productive season and he's still developing his all-round game.
* While it's impossible to know the depths of what Bill Zito will be able to accomplish as an NHL front-office man after 18 years as a player agent, it's a smart move by the Columbus Blue Jackets to hire him as an assistant general manager. Zito's relationships across the hockey world, from Europe to North America, will give the Blue Jackets even more credibility in their pursuit of becoming a consistent contender.
Zito is well-versed in the current players and the ones coming up through the ranks. He understands the nuances of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and is obviously astute at negotiating contracts (look at the deals signed by Tuukka Rask and Valtteri Filppula this summer). He's well-known by the other 29 general managers, and appears to be well-respected, too.
* Over the Boards returns in two weeks.