Mullett mania: Arizona Coyotes earn style points in home opener as new chapter begins

Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka takes in the atmosphere as the Coyotes prepare to play their first game at Mullett Arena in Tempe. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

A high energy crowd reacts after the Coyotes score a goal against the Winnipeg Jets. The approximately 5,000 fans saw the Jets take the game into overtime before beating the Coyotes. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

TEMPE – A rowdy student section, a drumline, and an arena filled with 5,000 blonde mullet wigs converged on the Arizona State campus Friday as the Arizona Coyotes ushered in a new age at Mullett Arena.

Flocks of ASU students and Arizona Coyotes fans, all who received the promotional wigs, converged on the new multi-complex arena for the Coyotes’ inaugural home game there against the Winnipeg Jets.

For longtime Coyotes fans, this season’s home opener marked the start of a fresh chapter for the embattled franchise. And while the team’s temporary move to an intimate college venue has been criticized or even mocked by some, especially in the national media that covers the NHL, the enthusiastic crowd Friday suggested that the move just might work.

About the only negative that emerged from the club’s opening night was a 3-2 loss in overtime to the Jets, but the atmosphere inspired hope in Coyotes fans for the first time in a while.

“You have probably heard of all the negative comments and even some misinformation that has been put out there about how the team is not doing enough, or doesn’t stand a chance to stay in Arizona,” said Paul Gheduzzi, an avid Coyotes who took a flight from Philadelphia just to attend the opener.

“I honestly believe there’s a lot of fans here in Arizona, especially in the greater Phoenix area. And the way you’re going to bring those fans out is if you engage with them in the community, which I believe they’re doing. But you also have to minimize the missteps – make sure that if there’s an opportunity to really captivate the fan base, you do it.”

The venue also offers a chance for the Coyotes to nurture a new fan base because of the on-campus location and a growing hockey community that surrounds Arizona State’s burgeoning hockey program.

While small, the arena is more accessible for most fans than the team’s previous home at Gila River Arena – now called Desert Diamond Arena – in Glendale, a nightmarish commute for weeknight hockey games.

The Coyotes’ Christian Fischer greets fans outside Mullett Arena before the team’s first home game there. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

The mix of a college hockey atmosphere and an NHL product combined to create a lot of energy and excitement in “The Mullett.”

The crowd chanted, “He shoots. He scores,” “Hey, goalie you suck,” and “It’s all your fault,” after every Coyotes goal, familiar refrains for those who have attended ASU hockey games, where the chants are becoming a tradition.

The Coyotes iconic goal song, “Howlin’ for You,” also played as the soundtrack to a chorus of celebration.

Coyotes players evidently loved the vibe.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Coyotes forward Clayton Keller. “It’s exciting to play games when the fans are into it and it’s loud. It energizes us. Hopefully the fans keep showing up.”

For longtime Coyotes players, including Keller, sold-out home games are far from the norm. With the Coyotes’ struggles over the years and their old arena’s remote location, many games were played with a lot of empty seats or– worse – seats filled by visiting fans.

This season, though, the Coyotes are expecting the low-capacity seating and boisterous student section to give them the home-ice advantage they have missed.

“It’s going to be our home for three years here or maybe four, but I think the more we embrace it, it’s a tough place to play,” said Coyotes veteran Christian Fischer. “We could use this (to) our advantage. Teams probably don’t want to come here for whatever reason and in a small environment.

“Well, it’d be great for us, and let’s use that as motivation to make it damn hard to play here.”

Another knock on Mullett is for the temporary locker rooms that are not deemed to be up to “NHL standards,” a topic that blew up on social media in the week leading up to the opener.

Completion of two NHL-caliber locker rooms is anticipated in December as part of a $30-million annex, but until then the Coyotes and their opponents will occupy temporary locker rooms.

The Coyotes will use the locker room at Mullett built for visiting college teams, while their NHL opponents will use a makeshift locker room in a space fitted with rubber flooring and curtains.

For the players, it’s a temporary inconvenience. They just want to play. Even the visiting Jets were willing to deal with the setup.

“All in all, I think it was made out to be a lot worse than what it actually was,” said Jets forward Blake Wheeler. “As long as you have a spot to put your gear on, (and) talk about the game. It really is a beautiful college hockey rink.”

Mullett Arena sported a lot of Arizona State promotion, but center ice featured both the ASU logo and the Coyotes’ Kachina logo. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

Added Jets assistant coach Scott Arniel: “It’s a big (temporary locker room). It’s wide open here. Everything about the building was actually pretty cool. That intensity, the atmosphere; like I said, it’s like a junior college game. Everybody’s right on top of you, real loud. And they seem to be having a lot of fun. Their facilities here are what they are. They’ve got a couple of weeks before they get all their new stuff ready to go.”

Whether the product on the ice will be successful or not, remains to be seen. The Coyotes lost Sunday to the New York Rangers and will try again on Tuesday to record their first victory on the Mullett Arena ice when the Florida Panthers visit.

While the Coyotes and the city of Tempe continue to work towards the development of a permanent home for the Valley’s NHL franchise near Priest Road along Tempe Town Lake, the ‘80s mullet is making a comeback on ASU’s campus. And so, too, is the Coyotes organization, at least with the team’s die-hard fans.

“There was a different feeling in the air and there was a lot of anticipation for what it was going to be like,” Gheduzzi said of the opener in the college venue. “So when I got there, I knew for a fact that this was not just another game.

“And when I was there at the plaza, I was in my jersey and my wig (and) I felt this level of excitement. I was talking to a couple of staffers that really liked what I was wearing. They were telling me, ‘We’re happy and excited for this new chapter in team history here, and we’re going to make things happen in Tempe.’”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Danny Karmin expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He has interned with The Abercrombie Agency and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.