Cover photo: The Coyotes salute a sellout crowd at the conclusion of their 2012 playoff run.
Cover photo credit: Christian Peterson, Getty Images
1996: the most important year in sports history...ok, maybe it wasn't, but for me and so many of the people I grew up around, it absolutely was. 1996 was the year that the Phoenix area, the sport of hockey, and the National Hockey League defied the odds - it was the year the year that the Phoenix Coyotes arrived in Arizona. Yes, hockey at the highest level had made it to a place that averages over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months. Hockey purists scoffed at it, the league was intrigued by it, and Arizona sports fan...well, they didn't really care. They didn't really know what to do with this ugly duckling that barged into the home of the beloved Phoenix Suns seemingly out of nowhere. They didn't even know what to call this new neighbor. The nickname "Scorpions" won the naming contest held by the ownership group, but the owners decided that that was too off-putting, so they went with the runner-up of "Coyotes" instead.
So if nobody cared, why was it so important? Well, they would come to care. USA hockey enrollment in Arizona skyrocketed, hockey rinks were built all over the valley, and youth club programs sprouted up just as quickly to take up residence in these new buildings. To this day, Arizona is still the fastest growing state in USA hockey enrollment. The arrival of the Coyotes brought knowledge of the game of hockey to a state that didn't really know what it was, and the infectious nature of the game did the rest.
It is now that I will admit my biases on this subject. I went to my first Coyotes game on March 3, 2007. The Coyotes lost 3-4 to one of their fellow expansion teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets. I didn't care. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I knew at that moment that that is what I wanted to do.
I had never seen hockey in my life, despite my family loving sports. I grew up watching baseball, basketball, and football. None of them ever interested me. My mom, who loved sports, began to worry that her son would not share her love for athletics. That concern was soon replaced with a new concern: her son fell in love with a sport that she knew nothing about. She didn't even know if youth hockey was an option in Arizona.
It was. Now, 15 years to the day after I saw my first glimpse of hockey, I'm writing this article 12 hours before I leave for what must be my thousandth hockey tournament. This article isn't about me though. It's not about my love for hockey. It's not even about hockey in general. I only went into the detail I did so you might have a better understanding of the emotion behind the real subject of my column today: the sad history of the Arizona Coyotes (don't be confused, they changed their name from Phoenix to Arizona in 2014) and why I wish members of the hockey world would shut up before they started talking about something they don't know anything about.
As of me writing this, the Arizona Coyotes are arguably the most hated team in the NHL. No, it is not because they have an obnoxious star player. It is not because they have a coach that makes inflammatory comments. It definitely is not because of their history of success. No no, it is a much sadder reason - it's because the rest of the NHL wishes that the Arizona Coyotes had never come to exist. They call them an embarrassment to the league. An embarrassment to the sport. They hate the commissioner because of his commitment to keeping the Coyotes in Arizona. They hate Arizona, because they think that Arizona hates hockey. Now, if I were to look at this from the outside, I could perhaps see why. The Coyotes have some of the lowest attendance in the NHL (thank you Buffalo and Ottawa for allowing me to say "some") and they are the least valuable team in the league. They have won one division title since their arrival in Arizona. So yeah, I see why it looks like that. The reality though, is a bit harder to see. The Coyotes play in Gila River Arena, and have since 2003. Gila River Arena is in Glendale, right next door to State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals. Glendale is 30 minutes to an hour away from the vast majority of hockey fans in Arizona, who typically reside in the north and east parts of the valley. No one, no matter how crazy of a hockey fan you are, wants to drive through the heart of Phoenix to get to Glendale to watch a game on a Wednesday night. Attendance suffers because of it.
Attendance also suffers because the team is bad. Why are they bad? Same reason as every other professional team that is perennially bad: they are poorly ran. Since the Coyotes moved to Arizona, they have been passed around from shady businessman to shady businessman. The GOAT of hockey, Wayne Gretzky, even had part-ownership of the team at one point. Now, he used that power to name himself head coach in 2005 despite having no prior coaching experience. But still. GOAT is in the house.
After the GOAT's coaching stint was over in 2009, the Coyotes filed for bankruptcy. The NHL then took control of the team until they found an owner they deemed worthy of taking on this dumpster fire. That did not happen until 2013.
It was around that time that the first public hatred for the Coyotes started to build. Why is the NHL keeping this team in an impossible hockey market? Why are our ticket revenues going to pay this pathetic organization's bills? No one, except Arizona hockey fans, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, knew the real reason. The reason is because Arizona isn't an impossible hockey market, the Coyotes have just been in an impossible situation. I can't count how many times someone has told me they would go to Coyotes games if they were closer. If they were better. They would learn the game because it looks so interesting, but Glendale is just so far for a weeknight. Every friend I've ever had come and watch me play hockey has asked the same questions: when's the next one? Where can I get more of this? I often say that everyone loves hockey, they just don't know it yet. Baseball? Too slow and too steeped in tradition to have mass appeal. Football? Again, too slow and too uneventful (I love football by the way, but this is from the people, not me). Basketball? Why was that a foul? Enough said. But hockey? Speed. Power. Did he just hit that guy with his stick? He can't do that, that's a penalty, right? Yes it is. It makes sense. It's fast. It's elegant. It has mass appeal. The NHL knows that.
I'm sure I lost some of you there, but don't hate the player, hate the game. Anyways, the NHL eventually found that owner. Then, in typical Coyotes fashion, that owner found an owner. And now, here we are. But wait one moment. What is this feeling swelling up inside me? It feels so, so unfamiliar. This time, things feels different. This owner actually is making moves to get the Coyotes out of Glendale and move them to Tempe. Not only that, but he hired a real CEO. That CEO hired a real general manager. That general manager hired a real head coach. Not that all of the coaches and GM's prior had been fake, but they might as well have been. The Coyotes have a real direction. They are far along in plans to build an arena and entertainment district in Tempe. Where all the hockey fans are. Next to a major freeway. They have more draft picks than you can shake a stick at. They have young talent. The future is bright!
...but the Coyotes are still hated. They're hated because they signed a three-year deal with Arizona State University to move into their brand new, 5,000 seat arena that will house the ASU NCAA DI hockey program. This is temporary, of course, and will only be used by the Coyotes while their new arena, for which the plans are not finalized, is being built down the road at the corner of Rio Salado and Priest. An NHL hockey team. In a 5,000 seat arena. NHL owners are irate. NHL fans are dumbfounded. Coyotes fans are thrilled. They're thrilled because for the first time, their team has a future that they can get behind. No more hour-long drives to the games. No more empty, cavernous arenas. No more financial problems. No more cellar-dwelling. No more win-loss column embarrassments. Those last three are purely hypothetical, but it is the direction that the first two point in. In time, hopefully, those things will come. In time, NHL fans from across the country will eat their words when they see a brand new arena in the heart of the desert, filled to the brim with lifelong hockey fans sitting side-by-side with people who just want to become lifelong fans themselves. And I'll be there. And so will every teammate I played aside who owes some of the greatest joys of their life to an organization that most of the sports world hates, or at least, is violently confused by. Until then, we all have 2012, the year that the Coyotes went to the Western Conference Finals, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Los Angeles Kings. That seems appropriate to me though. At one point, the hockey world didn't understand putting a team in Los Angeles either. Hockey purists scoffed at it, the league was intrigued by it, and LA sports fans...well, they didn't really care. Until they did. Sound familiar?