Paradise lost: Coyotes, fans share emotional embrace in Arizona swan song

Amid the uncertainty of relocation, devoted fans stand outside Mullett Arena as a symbol of solidarity and love for their beloved Arizona Coyotes. (Photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

Arizona Coyotes fans gather at Mullett Arena for the final game of the regular season, wearing white shirts amid looming relocation. (Photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

As fans stream into the Mullett Arena, drummers outside provide a lively backdrop to enhance the pregame atmosphere. (Photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

Outside Mullett Arena, a heartfelt sign expresses gratitude to the dedicated fans whose unwavering support has fueled the team’s journey. (Photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

TEMPE — As the season – and 28 years of ice hockey in the desert – came to a close, Arizona Coyotes players removed their jerseys and tossed them to chosen fans. There was no rush to get off the ice because nobody wanted to leave. The players stayed to sign autographs and tossed merchandise over the glass, while spectators and team employees choked back tears.

For upwards of 40 minutes postgame, the sold-out hometown crowd and the Coyotes shared one final moment in a season finale that brought on mixed emotions – from crying and cheers to hugs and shared memories throughout the concourse at Mullett Arena.

Wednesday night marked the end of a long, up-and-down era for the Coyotes, who are relocating to Salt Lake City after nearly three decades in the Valley, similar to how the game played out in Arizona’s 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

Before the first puck dropped, anxious energy filled the 5,000-seat arena, but after the opening face-off, anxiety and fear transformed into joy for the next 60 minutes.

Fans waved white shirts from start to finish – not as a sign of surrendering despite the looming relocation but in the spirit of the tenacity shown through decades of instability.

The atmosphere outside of the arena mimicked the intensity of fans inside. A watch party was held for fans who couldn’t view the game in person due to record-shattering ticket prices that rose to as much as $10,000 for seats in the cozy arena.

“The Coyotes mean everything to me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” said longtime Coyotes fan Alex Khoury. “I wouldn’t have met the people that I love and cherish without them. I don’t know where I would be without the Coyotes. It is heartbreaking to see them leave.”

“What’s not to like about the Valley?” Coyotes coach André Tourigny said after the organization’s final game in Arizona was in the books. “If there’s a paradise, it’s near here. I don’t know where it is, but it’s not far from here.”

Amid speculation that owner Alex Meruelo will continue to pursue a new arena in the Phoenix area and seek an expansion team in the future, the Coyotes played their final game in the Valley.

Lisa Parker, a die-hard Coyotes fan, holds a special place in her heart for the team.

“When I was 13 years old I had open-heart surgery, and I got a Make-A-Wish grant and I was able to meet all of the players,” Parker said. “It was my wish because I had fallen in love with this team so it is going to be really hard to see them go.”

The Coyotes fed off the emotion and channeled their own on the ice. Goals by forwards Liam O’Brien, Matias Maccelli and Lawson Crouse gave Arizona a 3-2 lead heading into the final minutes of the game. Forward Dylan Guenther buried a late fourth goal, followed by an empty-net goal from Sean Durzi to secure a meaningful 5-2 win in front of a sold-out crowd.

As much as the team means to the fans, the community’s support was life-changing for players and their careers in Arizona.

“I’ll be grateful forever that I got the opportunity to play my first game as a Coyote and got to play my first game in Arizona and play in front of the fans that I’ve cheered with, the people that have been so great to me and my family,” said Arizona forward Josh Doan, a Valley native and the son of Shane, the Coyotes’ franchise scoring leader.

Despite the importance of securing a win in the Arizona farewell, Wednesday seemed less about a game and more about the loyalty, passion and grit of Coyotes fans. Resiliency shined in a celebratory and wholesome environment, while anger and sadness seeped through the cracks.

“It was a mixed feeling, I am sure, for our fans in the sense that there’s a lot of pride for their team,” Tourigny said. “They support us and cheer for us and there was a lot of emotion, but at the same time there is a little bit of sadness on their side, and I really, really understand that.”

“Let’s go Yotes!” and the classic tune “Sweet Caroline” was followed by tears and chants of “Salt Lake sucks!”

Most of the bitterness from Coyotes fans comes from a long history of dysfunction and betrayal. Ownership plagued the team countless times during the team’s tenure in the Valley after it relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. From bankruptcy and being forced out of Glendale to a failed vote for a new arena in Tempe, the franchise never established a stable footing to prosper.

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Suboptimal arenas have housed the team since it arrived in 1996. A claustrophobic American West Arena hosted the Coyotes from 1996-2003 before the team played at Gila River Arena in Glendale until being removed by the city in 2021.

“To know what they have gone through, all the ups and downs, and to see them here tonight after everything they’ve been through over the past 20 years is really incredible,” Doan said of the fans.

Meurelo has lacked communication with the organization throughout the process of acquiring a sustainable arena in Arizona. Fans have expressed their loss of trust in the current ownership group.

Despite the frustration, however, nothing remotely paralleled the specialty of the moment shared between the fans and the players following Wednesday night’s game.

It felt like one giant hug.

The Coyotes are expected to announce their relocation to Salt Lake City in the coming days. The team will travel to Utah soon to scout its new facilities.

“It all came pretty fast, I was planning on leaving all of my clothes here, thinking I was going to come back and play another year in the desert,” Coyotes forward Logan Cooley said. “But obviously that’s not the way it went.”

Josh Jones(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Jones expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Jones has interned as a beat writer, tech director and producer at, Varsity Sports and PHNX.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.