GLENDALE – It has been 20 years since the Winnipeg Jets said goodbye to Canada and moved to the Arizona desert. In that time, the organization has made a significant impact on hockey culture across the Grand Canyon state, despite arena battles, financial difficulties and long playoff droughts.
“We haven’t made it easy at times,” said Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who came with the team from Winnipeg and is the only player remaining from the move. “We have made it as difficult as possible on the fan base, and yet they have stuck with us.”
It has been a tumultuous 20 years for the Coyotes in Arizona.
The team’s original Arizona home, what is now Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix, was configured for basketball and therefore included thousands of obstructed-view seats for hockey.
The team moved to Glendale in 2003 amid what would become an eight-year absence from the playoffs, including the 2004-05 NHL season that was canceled in a labor dispute.
The woes continued when, in October 2009, owner Jerry Moyes put the team into bankruptcy, starting a four-year saga during which the NHL ran the franchise while searching for new ownership.
Attendance plummeted from 14,875 fans in the 2008-09 season to fewer than 12,000 per game the next season, according to HockeyDB.com. As of last season, attendance still had not fully recovered to pre-bankruptcy levels, and the team’s latest ownership group is looking for yet another arena following a dispute with the Glendale City Council last year over the team’s lease at Gila River Arena.
Another playoff drought, now at four seasons, hasn’t helped. And in those year when the Coyotes have made the playoffs during their time in Arizona, they have only advanced out of the first round once, when they reached the Western Conference Finals in 2012.
Laying the groundwork
Even before the Coyotes arrived, there was a growing appetite for hockey in Arizona. During the 1992-93 season, the NHL scheduled “out-of-venue” games in potential future markets, including a game at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. That game between the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens sold out.
Four more out-of-venue games followed the next season at what was then America West Arena. Those games also packed the house.
In 1996, with the help of Jerry Colangelo, managing partner of the Phoenix Suns and newly awarded Arizona Diamondbacks at that time, the Jets made the move to Phoenix.
“There was a lot of excitement because we had just gained the Diamondbacks and, wow, we’re a four-sport town now,” said Bill Bradley, the assistant sports editor at The Arizona Republic who coordinated hockey coverage when the Coyotes arrived.
“There were a lot of people who wanted hockey,” said Bradley, now sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Some people were skeptical it would ever come.”
To familiarize Arizona with the sport, Bradley and The Republic produced a series of stories explaining what hockey was about and what fans should look for at games. The stories covered everything from the rules and vernacular of hockey to primers on each NHL team as they came to the Valley for the first time to play the Coyotes.
“We tried to explain it in many, many ways,” Bradley said. “Like when the Kings came in the first time, we had an L.A. Kings primer . . . Who were the Kings? When the Montreal Canadiens came in, who were the Canadiens? Who were the St. Louis Blues? What’s their history? So we tried to find any little way we could to educate people, as opposed to just assuming they knew everything about it.”
A growing hockey culture
Despite the off-ice issues, Doan saw the Coyotes organization growing hockey culture in Arizona. The impact is especially evident in the growth of youth hockey programs.
“Having an NHL team just seems to give validity to the program,” Doan said. “You look at the cities that don’t have NHL teams and for the most part their minor hockey programs aren’t near as strong.
“It’s exciting to push a sport and grow it at the grassroots (level), because it makes everyone better.”
According to USA Hockey, there were 3,382 youth hockey players in the state of Arizona during the 1998-1999 season, the first season the organization began keeping numbers by state. Last year, the number had grown to 7,510.
Dave Vest, the Coyotes executive vice president of communication and broadcasting, came with the team from Winnipeg and believes the growth in youth hockey is directly related to the presence of the Coyotes.
“There are six travel hockey programs in the Phoenix area that offer Mite- to Midget-age hockey at A to AAA skill levels, as well as five rinks that offer house league development programs for all age levels and a 26-team high school hockey league with junior varsity and three levels of varsity hockey,” Vest said.
“Numerous players from Arizona have been drafted in the NHL, including Auston Matthews who was selected first overall by Toronto in last June’s NHL Entry Draft.”
Matthews, a 19-year-old from Scottsdale, made his NHL debut Oct. 12 with the Toronto Maple Leafs by scoring four goals, the most ever in an NHL rookie’s debut.
Matthews grew up playing hockey with several different organizations, including the Arizona Bobcats, coached by Ron Filion, who saw Matthews’ potential early on. He believes that with the success Matthews has had, coupled with efforts by the Coyotes to grow youth hockey, the Valley hockey market will continue to flourish.
“I am pretty sure that over time with him having more and more success and hopefully with the Coyotes keeping on the track they are doing right now, with being involved with youth hockey in Arizona, it’s really going to help,” said Filion, “Everything together, it’s going to grow.”
The Coyotes dropped the puck on their 20th season in the Valley on Oct. 15. Through all the relocation rumors, two arenas, bankruptcy, several ownership groups, battles with the Glendale City Council, a name change and now the possibility of yet another arena, the Coyotes – and their fans – have persevered.
“The fans have been incredible, and we are so fortunate to have that core that has stuck with us,” Doan said. “There would be a lot of places that they wouldn’t have. The people in Phoenix have been incredible.”