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Commissioner Bettman celebrates new era in Phoenix

by Jerry Brown /

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Flanked by the new owners of the Phoenix Coyotes and with a full house filing into Arena, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman could afford to joke about the team's five-year ownership odyssey that ended, at last, just as he had hoped.

"Was it five years? Are you sure? It seems like yesterday," Bettman said Thursday night while new owners George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc chuckled a few hours before the Coyotes began a new era as they opened the 2013-14 regular season against the New York Rangers. "But in any case, the end result certainly made the journey worthwhile."

With the team sold after four seasons of League ownership and a long-term arena deal with the city of Glendale in place, Bettman wasn't in town to wrestle with the city council or give another in a seemingly unending updates on the progress of the franchise. "Tonight, I'm just a fan," he said.

Buoyed by the aggressiveness of Gosbee and LeBlanc, as well as the anticipation of improved finances, the Coyotes extended goaltender Mike Smith's contract, signed one of the biggest available free agents, center Mike Ribiero, and may take on more payroll if general manager Don Maloney finds the right deal to add scoring punch to the second line. Star defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle and captain Shane Doan are also locked to long-term deals; negotiations to extend forward Radim Vrbata are continuing.

"Every major metric is up when talking about team sales," LeBlanc said. "Tickets sales up 15-20 percent above last year, when tickets sales increased after a trip to the Western Conference finals. Suite sales up 25 percent; sponsorships are so much improved that I'm not even sure we could measure them."

Bettman knows that the first few months are just baby steps toward making the team profitable, but he reiterated that hard work was put in to keep the Coyotes put because he believed in the market.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg because this group didn't get started until August," he said. "We, and by that I mean the League and the Board of Governors, always believed this market could and would support hockey. For a variety of reasons and circumstances over the years we were never able to see the most this franchise could do with stability and a clear runway.

"It's the dawn of a new era and one that bodes extraordinarily well for hockey in the desert."

The Coyotes also have hockey fans at the helm for the first time in the Canadian-born Gosbee and LeBlanc. The owners hosted a dinner for the players and their wives earlier this week, but LeBlanc said no one from ownership was planning any pep-talk speeches before Thursday's game.

"When I addressed the team at opening of camp, I said 'this is the first time you're going to see me and the last time you're going to see me,' " LeBlanc said. "We'll leave the rest to Don and coach [Dave] Tippett."

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