The Arizona Coyotes are gone. Someone please tell ex-owner Alex Meruelo

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True to form, Alex Meruelo was defiant.

Whether in a meeting with Arizona Coyotes employees last Thursday or during a local radio interview later that afternoon or as he was sitting next to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a hotel in Phoenix the following day, Meruelo, the owner of the Coyotes since 2019, reacted to being forced to sell the franchise by the league by insisting he hadn’t lost it at all.

Sure, the Arizona Coyotes were moving to Salt Lake City. Sure, players and hockey operations employees were already meeting with a new owner and making plans to visit their facilities in Utah, and, sure, season ticket holders in Arizona were wondering when they would be refunded the deposits they’d put down for next season, but Meruelo’s relationship with that reality was, at best, casual.

On the “Burns and Gambo” radio show, he corrected one of the show’s hosts, insisting he was still the owner of the team, which was now simply “inactive.” He said he merely sent “players and hockey operations to Utah.” In the meeting with staff the next day, he told employees, who were worried about their jobs, that he refused to go down as the guy who lost the Coyotes. In a news conference with Bettman on Friday, the commissioner interjected on multiple occasions, jumping in to “translate” when Meruelo blurted out “I don’t like the media.” At one point, Bettman grabbed Meruelo’s arm to stop him from talking.

A thriving NHL franchise in Arizona has long been an oasis the league toiled toward. It is a vibrant market with a robust youth hockey scene, and it has long presented an opportunity to diversify hockey’s fanbase. But since the club’s inception in 1996 (the club moved from Winnipeg where it previously played as the Winnipeg Jets), the league and Coyotes fans have endured much in pursuit of that dream. There was a failed attempt to build in Scottsdale in 2001 and a move to Glendale in 2003. Six years later, in 2009, the NHL had to take control of the franchise after the team’s third owner put the team into bankruptcy. The past two seasons, the Coyotes played out of a 4,500-seat college facility after getting kicked out of their former arena following a battle over unpaid arena charges and more than $1.3 million in delinquent tax bills.

In forcing the sale of the Coyotes to Ryan Smith, owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, the league finally pulled the plug on its Arizona dream — at least for now. At the center of that failure is Meruelo. He was viewed as a potential savior of the franchise when he bought the team five years ago but became the final nail in its coffin, failing and defiant to the end.

Tact and grace were never Meruelo’s preferred approaches.

He made his wealth in real estate development and construction and also owns media companies and casinos. He was the first Hispanic owner to hold a majority stake in an NHL club — one located in a market that was, at the time he purchased the team, 42 percent Hispanic or Latino. Xavier Gutierrez, his top lieutenant and a longtime Meruelo confidant, became the league’s first Latino CEO and team president. Both were emphatic about their desire to connect with the fan base and rolled out a number of community-oriented initiatives to achieve the goal. Despite the fact Meruelo had a deal fall through for an NBA franchise years earlier (according to one report, the league felt the deal was too highly leveraged), the NHL hoped his deep pockets and reputation for revitalizing distressed assets would finally lift the franchise to stability.

It took just over a year for that optimism to crack. In August 2020, reports surfaced that he failed to pay players signing bonuses. Gutierrez blamed it on their lack of experience owning a sports franchise. As more vendors and employees began cropping up with complaints about unpaid invoices and strongarm tactics, it became clear that it was a feature of Meruelo’s business practices, not a bug.

Finding a long-term home for the Coyotes under Meruelo’s ownership quickly developed into his most vexing problem. In his first news conference, he addressed the need for a “financially sustainable” solution to the team’s arena woes. Given his real estate and construction background, there was optimism he’d be able to build a state-of-the-art arena as part of that plan. But as word of his business tactics made the rounds, distrust within the business and political communities grew. Instead of trying to forge inroads with power brokers and rebuild his reputation among local leaders, he was brash and arrogant. Former Tempe city councilmember Lauren Kuby recalled an interaction in which Meruelo remarked: “I bet you’ve never met a billionaire before.”

In February 2021, The Athletic published a report that Meruelo’s first 18 months of ownership was marred by a revolving door of executives, strained relationships with corporate partners, and a litany of financial issues, some made worse by the pandemic. The story, which drew from interviews with more than 50 people, detailed a pattern of unpaid bills and jilted vendors, a disastrous draft pick that earned them universal scorn and employees complaining about a toxic environment.

At a company draft party in the summer of 2021, he unexpectedly took the microphone, telling the crowd the team would leave Glendale and build a new facility in Tempe. Executives in attendance, including Gutierrez, grew visibly uncomfortable at his bombastic speech given the team’s fragile relationship with Glendale and the corporate partners in the audience.

“That was one of the first signs I had that we were really in trouble,” said a former employee. “He had no self-awareness whatsoever.”

Later that summer, the Coyotes were told they were being kicked out of their Glendale arena after the 2021-22 season, with the city manager describing the situation as the “point of no return.” Meruelo had played hardball in lease negotiations, certain the City of Glendale would never boot him from the building. For a man who owns casinos, he was an ineffectual bluffer.

It was a massive misstep. It meant the franchise had no suitable place to play while Meruelo attempted to get politicians, unions and voters behind a $2 billion development plan in Tempe that included a new arena. As he worked to secure that project, Meruelo’s years of hubris came back to bite him. Grassroots organizers pounded his track record and credit rating, citing a financial analysis commissioned by the Tempe City Council. Campaign materials characterized him as “corrupt,” “scandal-plagued” and a “deadbeat billionaire.” Local trade and worker unions lobbied against the plan. And Meruelo didn’t dive deep into his coffers to counteract that negative messaging. He said last week he poured $7 million into the referendum; campaign finance records show that he spent just over $1 million.

In May 2023, voters rejected the proposal, leaving the team again with no clear path to a suitable arena.

“I think the narrative in Tempe … is that they botched this campaign,” said Randy Keating, a Tempe City council member who supported the development proposal. “And they did.”

The clock on relocation began ticking once the proposal was voted down, yet Meruelo remained undeterred. In early March 2024, news broke that the team was eyeing state land in north Phoenix. The team was initially considering a 200-acre parcel in that area but that plan was “pared back” because of high infrastructure costs, Gutierrez later told The Arizona Republic. But bidding on the land required months of public notice; by the time the team secured a place on the agenda with the Arizona State Land Department in mid-March, the timeline became too “stretched,” according to Bettman.

In January, Ryan Smith publicly stated his intention to bring a team to Salt Lake City.  In February 2023, NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh blasted the Coyotes and made it clear that the situation was untenable. He stressed the urgency of addressing the matter and applied pressure on the league to take action.

On March 6, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly met with Meruelo and asked whether he could look his players in the eyes and give them an honest answer of when they’d have an NHL-caliber home. He told them he could not. Over the next five weeks, a deal came together to send them to Utah for the 2024-25 season.

In a news conference on Friday, Bettman said the league decided it wasn’t fair for players to continue playing in a facility built to accommodate ASU’s hockey team and one-third the size of most of the league’s arenas. Meruelo called selling the franchise the most “painful decision in his life” — even though it was arguably not his decision.


NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (right) speaks alongside Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo during a news conference in Phoenix last week. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

As part of the sale, Meruelo will be given the exclusive right to bring a team back to the market, an effort that begins with the state land auction on June 27. Bettman said the league needs 18 months notice prior to reactivation and PHNX Sports reported that any arena must be 50 percent complete in order to trigger reactivation notice. According to Sportsnet, the “revival rights are non-transferable” and the $1 billion price tag to bring the Coyotes back is locked in. It is a path back into the NHL for Meruelo, but few people believe the league would allow that to happen.

“I have not witnessed a group more committed to doing things the wrong way and failing to develop any sort of meaningful support in the political community, business community and with the influential stakeholders they need to make this happen,” said David Leibowitz, a former communications consultant for the Coyotes who worked with three different owners, including Meruelo.

Said Keating: “I have zero faith they will be able to pull that off. The fact that he couldn’t build an arena when he had a team. Who’s going to build it now?” He added: “No one wants to do business with this guy. Why would you?”

Meruelo still exits with a golden parachute. Ryan and Ashley Smith of Smith Entertainment Group (SEG) purchased the team for $1.2 billion, $200 million of which will reportedly be divvied up among other NHL owners. Meruelo purchased the team for close to $450 million, according to two people familiar with the team’s finances. Even taking into consideration the franchise’s existing debts and yearly operating losses — which ranged from $50 to $70 million, those sources said — Meruelo is likely to net several hundred million dollars. One former employee, made aware of that fact, likened Meruelo’s tenure to that of a teenager who wrecks a car and then gets compensated with a Ferrari.

Employees within the franchise’s business side have been told their jobs are safe until the June 27 land auction. Meruelo said on Friday that those jobs will be evaluated over the next 60 days but that his intent “is to keep everything intact.” Those who remain behind have been told to focus efforts on the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyote’s AHL affiliate that Meruelo still owns.

Last week, many of those employees and others from the past were at the anger stage of grieving. On social media, one former employee described a stint working for the organization as the worst four months of her life. A former in-game host revealed on X that the team tried to avoid paying the full amount of what she was contractually owed. Many employees attended the team’s final game in Arizona last Wednesday. Meruelo was conspicuously absent. He later claimed he didn’t attend because he was hammering out the final details of the sale of the team. In his absence, the mood was more Irish wake than funeral. Diehard fans stuck around for the final buzzer and long afterward. Players stayed on the ice in their gear and signed autographs. Employees congregated on the ice until their feet grew cold.

One young fan held up a sign that featured a border of Coyotes player photos. “THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME FALL IN LOVE WITH HOCKEY,” he wrote. In the center of the sign was a picture of Meruelo. Under that picture, in red, were the words:

“NOT YOU.”

The Athletic’s Chris Johnston contributed to this report.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Norm Hall, Scott Taetsch / Getty)





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