Hockey hotbed: Arizona might have lost its NHL team, but push for the sport’s growth continues

Hockey in Arizona remains strong behind the explosion in popularity from the high school level to the NHL. (File photo by Savannah M Nugent/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Kenny McGinley prides himself on being part of one of the first generations to play hockey in Arizona. Born in 1993, the current president of the Arizona High School Hockey Association was 3 when the first iteration of the Winnipeg Jets packed up and joined the Valley’s professional sports franchises as the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996.

For many years after the NHL’s emergence in the Valley, there was great skepticism as to whether a winter sport like hockey could survive in an arid climate. But there are several reasons why the sport has grown in the past 27 years, the largest being the Coyotes’ success in spearheading the hockey movement in Arizona.

On the surface, it appears that Arizona hockey is in a tumultuous time. The Coyotes, who were renamed the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, saw their 2023-24 regular season come to a close on April 17 at the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena in Tempe. The next day it was announced that the Coyotes had been sold and will be moving to Salt Lake City due to ownership’s inability to secure a long-term arena deal in the Valley. However, the impact of an NHL team in Arizona has extended far beyond just the professional level.

The ever-growing youth scene – for both boys and girls – in addition to the strides made in college and minor-league hockey, have shown that the sport can thrive in such an untraditional market.

Youth hockey’s rise in the desert

Since the Coyotes arrived in town, the number of ice rinks in the state — specifically in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area — has rapidly increased, with 15 currently in the state of Arizona. This resulted in the emergence of youth programs, such as the Jr. Coyotes, who were originally established in the early 2000s, around the time the Ice Den in Scottsdale was built.

Naturally, more rinks and hockey programs becoming available meant more children were introduced to the sport. During the 2002-03 season, 4,949 athletes from Arizona were registered with USA Hockey. Twenty years later, the number of registered players has climbed to 9,716.

“There’s just more kids playing hockey now,” said Arizona Jr. Coyotes Director of Operations Mike DeAngelis. “The talent level is going up, and we’ve got young men playing in the NHL, you’ve got guys playing professional hockey, collegiate hockey from Arizona.

“Compared to when I first got involved, there was a pretty good triple-A community going on, but there weren’t a ton of kids playing hockey. (Not) as many as there are now, and certainly not the facilities. So I’ve definitely seen not only the numbers grow, but the level of play just (has gone) way up.”

Over the years, Arizona youth hockey programs like the Jr. Coyotes have seen significant growth and progress in more ways than just a significant uptick in enrollment numbers. The program now has several coaches at all levels with ample hockey experience, providing athletes better instruction and a chance to learn from professionals.

DeAngelis himself enjoyed an extensive playing career. The defenseman was a four-year contributor at the University of Minnesota Duluth from 1984 to 1988 before embarking on a 14-year professional career that saw him spend time in leagues across the globe — mainly in Italy — including a two-season stint with the Phoenix Mustangs of the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League.

The Jr. Coyotes staff also includes a handful of former NHL players such as Michael Grabner, Zbyněk Michálek and Steve Sullivan.

“I think the level of our athletes and the level of coaching has gone way up,” DeAngelis said. “We’ve got lots of former NHL (players), former Coyotes guys now that are coaches in our program. The coaching has gone up, the level of player has gone up.”

It doesn’t take a hard look to see that the level of athletes taking the ice in Arizona has indeed improved. Since the Coyotes’ inaugural season, several talented hockey players got their starts in Arizona, but none more notable than Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. While he was originally born in San Ramon, California, his family moved to Scottsdale only months later and the Grand Canyon State is where Matthews’ passion for hockey was ignited.

Matthews played his youth hockey in Arizona through 16U before electing to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) and later spending his draft year overseas in the Swiss National League. When he was selected first overall by the Maple Leafs in 2016, it marked the beginning of an illustrious, decorated career. Prior to Matthews being drafted, there were only three hockey players hailing from Arizona that have seen action in the NHL: forward Sean Couturier, goaltender Ty Conklin and defenseman Jim Brown.

With much of his playing days presumably still ahead of him, the 26-year-old’s resumé is already quite impressive. Through six full seasons in the NHL, Matthews is a four-time All-Star, two-time Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy recipient and was even named the league’s most valuable player for the 2021-22 campaign. This season he led the NHL with 69 goals.

Matthews is not the only high-profile professional hockey player hailing from the Valley. Maple Leafs forward Matthew Knies, 21, looks to be a promising part of his team’s future, while the Coyotes’ Josh Doan — son of Yotes’ legend Shane Doan and former ASU forward — was recently called up to the NHL and logged nine points in 11 games.

“(Matthews), his success in the hockey world has been fantastic,” DeAngelis said. “Everybody knows who he is. (Knies) recently with the Toronto Maple Leafs, this year has been a big one for a lot of kids who are around this age group of teenagers.”

Aside from Matthews, Arizona is well-represented among hockey’s elite players with Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators winger Brady Tkachuk and Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson all hailing from the Grand Canyon State.

In January, the Jr. Coyotes reached the championship game of the Circle K Classic — a high-profile international youth tournament held annually in Calgary.

There is still room for growth for the junior hockey scene in Arizona, although it remains less accessible than outdoor sports like football and baseball simply based on the number of playing surfaces across the state. But it’s important to acknowledge just how much the Jr. Coyotes have grown, providing young Arizona athletes a viable option to culminate their hockey careers at home. The demand is there.

“There aren’t a lot of reasons now for kids to leave Arizona to find another level of youth hockey,” DeAngelis said. “We want them leaving Arizona beyond youth hockey to join junior hockey when they’re ready.”

A growing high school scene

McGinley hasn’t always been spearheading the Arizona High School Hockey Association’s growth as the organization’s president; he, too, played hockey at the high school ranks, albeit when it was far smaller than today.

Immediately after his four-year high school playing career at Horizon High School, he began coaching locally. Through all of the development and transformation that the organization has experienced over the years, McGinley has held a consistent idea of what high school hockey in Arizona should be — a positive area for athletes to improve their game.

“I enjoy the high school environment that’s less pressured,” McGinley said. “We’re a player-centered environment, we’re a family-centered environment (asking) ‘What is the best experience for our players?’ The quality of hockey isn’t how we’re measured, it’s the quality of experience.”
The organization has experienced a significant uptick in registration. In 2013-14, there were about 450-500 players and 28-30 teams. Now, in the AHSHA’s 24th season, it contains 40 teams and about 770 players.

“Our registration on May 15 of last year literally sold out in 20 minutes, if that,” McGinley said. “The year before, it was 60 or 70 minutes, and the year before that it was three or four hours. So all that right there can tell you which way it’s trending. I think part of that is the product of high school hockey is getting better, our players are getting better… So that’s super helpful and that’s promoting that growth, because that leads more kids to want to play.”

But even with a boom in participation numbers, the AHSHA still faces its fair share of challenges, the most formidable being the distribution of players.

There are currently four levels of high school hockey in Arizona: Division 1, Division 2, Division 3 and Jr. Varsity. But not all schools are created equal when it comes to fielding teams. Certain institutions, like Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale and Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, have enough athletes to field entire teams. But for the majority of schools in Arizona, this simply isn’t the case.

Due to the Valley’s population being spread out — about five million people live in the 14,587 square miles encompassing the Phoenix metropolitan area — most of the 130 schools the AHSHA represents don’t have nearly enough hockey players enrolled to put out a full team. So the association developed a workaround.

The AHSHA entirely fields its registration, which allows it to hand-sort players onto squads. This process differs from year to year, but generally, if a school doesn’t have enough players for a full team, the association will assign players in the area to play for the closest institution using various statistics like school district boundaries and zip codes.

Consider 2024 AHSHA state champions Centennial High School in Peoria as an example. Along with Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, it represents the only high school hockey teams in the West Valley. Because of this, there is a large umbrella for both teams to take players from, as there are an estimated 160 players in that area with only two teams in close proximity.

“Just think of it as a huge net that’s cast over the entire West Valley,” McGinley said. “We could break (the group of players) up into seven or eight different teams and different school names. But when you do that, you’re going to have one good player, some kids that have never played hockey before, and it’s going to be a mix.

“What ultimately has happened, we’ve seen it for 20 years, teams didn’t experience any success… Some teams only have 12 or 13 players on them, so that makes budgeting harder, that makes organization harder, that makes year-to-year transitions harder. So we grouped them all together to build bigger programs for numerous reasons, to give not just on-ice success but off-ice success too, and some stability.”

Despite the Arizona Coyotes' move to Salt Lake City, the team's 27 years in Arizona have left a lasting impact on the growth of youth and high school hockey in the state. (Photo by Daniella Trujillo/Cronkite News)

Despite the Arizona Coyotes’ move to Salt Lake City, the team’s 27 years in Arizona have left a lasting impact on the growth of youth and high school hockey in the state. (Photo by Daniella Trujillo/Cronkite News)

Challenges aside, there is no denying how far the AHSHA has come in such a non-traditional hockey market. Even in its early days, high school hockey was a hot commodity in the Valley. McGinley recalls that as early as 2008, 550 fans routinely packed the Ice Den for every Division 1 state championship.

“Three to four hours before we started to sell tickets, the line was around the building,” McGinley said. “There were 500-600 people in line. They brought pizza, they brought lunch, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

So in 2012, the AHSHA went big and moved its championship to Desert Diamond Arena in Glendale, the former home of the Coyotes. While the event drew nearly 1,500 people, the atmosphere just wasn’t the same in a venue with 17,000 seats, prompting organizers to move back to Scottsdale.

In a sense, the AHSHA was stuck in a state of limbo — the championship was too big for the Ice Den yet too small for an average-sized NHL Arena. After holding the event at the now-demolished Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe for two years, Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat facility on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus that housed the Coyotes, opened in 2022. And it just so happened that Adam Mims, who ran Oceanside, transitioned to a role at the brand-new rink, giving the AHSHA a valuable connection.

At that point, McGinley knew he’d found the perfect match. As soon as Mullett Arena opened, he scheduled a meeting with leadership to discuss a potential partnership. In 2023, the championship moved to the arena, and the event instantly took on a more polished, professional look.

“I feel like we look more big-league than we actually are, just playing there,” McGinley said. “That experience — being able to turn on all the lights, cameras, bells, whistles, everything — gives a way higher production of the game than what our level actually is.”

After officials at Mullett Arena witnessed the raucous environment of the 2023 AHSHA State Championship, they knew they had made the right decision in allowing the event to be hosted in their building. The 2024 championship, which featured Centennial and Notre Dame Prep, drew around 2,000 spectators, about half the venue’s capacity, but the atmosphere reflected a packed and loud arena.

With an increase in the number of schools adopting hockey coinciding with the growth of the game across the board in Arizona, the potential of high school hockey expanding is seemingly limitless. However, regardless of the sport’s popularity in a given year, the AHSHA’s goal remains the same: help the participating players develop their game and become better.

“The emphasis is purely on hockey ability,” McGinley said. “We want to create the best hockey leagues that we can, but also, we want to push as many teams up to higher levels as possible, avoiding anyone going 0-20. We want development for our players… If we have 770 players, we hope that 770 leave this year being better hockey players than they came into it as.”

Expanding women’s hockey

Prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Arizona Kachinas president Lyndsey Fry was given the opportunity of a lifetime.

During her fourth year at Harvard, the Chandler native learned that she was selected to represent the United States’ women’s hockey team in the Games, a testament to her relentless training and unwavering commitment to the sport. While the Americans fell just short of winning the gold medal as they were defeated by rival Canada in the championship game, Fry had accomplished something that no hockey player from Arizona ever had before.

“It’s amazing to represent your country, but for me, it was so special to represent my state,” Fry said. “I was very conscious of the fact that if I made that team, I’d be the first hockey player — male or female — from the state of Arizona to go on and do that. Making that team was special for that reason. But also, I tell people all the time, my favorite part of the Olympics was getting to tell my family that I had made it, just because I was a little girl from the desert in Arizona.”

After her tenure at Harvard ended a year later, Fry knew she didn’t want to completely abandon the game she loves, and decided to take up coaching girls hockey, specifically in areas where the sport wasn’t well-recognized, like Alabama and New Mexico. To accomplish this, 10 years ago she started Lyndsey Fry Hockey, her very own organization dedicated to helping grow the sport among young girls.

Around that time, Fry also began holding hockey camps in the Phoenix metropolitan area, where she grew up playing. This helped her strengthen her relationships with rinks in the Valley, which came in handy after she began working with the Coyotes shortly after returning to Arizona following her graduation from Harvard.

Fry was hired as a full-time employee by the Coyotes as a hockey ambassador and advisor to the president/CEO in 2018 and got right to work, quickly establishing the Arizona Kachinas, an exclusive girls hockey program in Arizona, along with former Coyotes Senior Director of Hockey Development Matt Shott, who passed away in 2021 after a battle with liver cancer.

But the reality is that Fry was attempting to grow women’s hockey in an untapped hockey market, which came with its challenges. In 2002-03, Arizona only had 377 female hockey players registered with USA Hockey. While that number jumped to 1,060 in 2022-23, it still only made up a fraction of the 9,716 total players in the state. As a result, the main obstacle Fry faced in the early days of the Kachinas was simply making families aware that girls hockey was being offered.

“A lot of times, parents just need to be educated on what (hockey) is and what the opportunities are for their daughters,” Fry said. “Because there’s still the stigma of,‘Wait, Arizona has hockey? And Arizona has girls hockey?’ So we have to continue to fight through that, but once we get them out there, getting them to stay is pretty easy.”

The Coyotes’ women’s hockey programs greatly benefitted from the Industry Growth Fund, a 2013 joint venture between the NHL and NHLPA where owners and players put money in a pool that goes to growing hockey in North America by helping franchises create new programs. In 2017, the Coyotes were given their first girls’ hockey grant, leading to the creation of the Small Frys, a program that helps expose young girls to hockey, and the Kachinas.

With support from the NHL, along with absorbing two existing girls’ hockey programs in Arizona, the number of teams in the state grew from four to nine. Four years later, Arizona now has 16 women’s hockey teams, all affiliated with the Kachinas. There are now teams for girls of all ages in the Valley.

While they aren’t located in a hotbed for hockey, the Coyotes’ progress in the women’s hockey sphere provided a reference for other organizations. Fellow NHL franchises like the Chicago Blackhawks, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals all modeled programs after that of the Coyotes, showing how impactful they’ve been for women’s hockey.

Women’s hockey is only one of many areas in which hockey has grown in Arizona, and Fry believes the recent progress is only the beginning of the sport’s growth. Of course, women’s hockey is at the forefront of Fry’s focus, but she is optimistic that the sport as a whole will continue to flourish in the Grand Canyon State.

“Now, we’ve got every level of girls’ hockey available,” Fry said. “(If) you want to play house rec, you can play house rec. (If) you want to play A hockey, you can play A hockey… We have girls who have committed to all levels of NCAA as well as ACHA. I had to leave to go to Colorado to get opportunities. Kids don’t have to leave anymore. To me, that was what we were trying to do, is create a start-to-finish program that could serve as many girls as possible.

“I feel good about the future of hockey (in Arizona) no matter what happens, because I think there are just so many passionate people here and the sport has grown so much over the last 25-30 years that I don’t see that momentum stopping anytime soon.”

Hope remains

The Coyotes’ abrupt relocation left a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the future of hockey in the Valley. But shortly after the move became official, several stakeholders presented a plan to continue the sport’s growth in Arizona, with Fry at the forefront of these efforts.

On April 25, she announced the establishment of the Matt Schott Arizona Hockey Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization aiming to support youth hockey at all levels in the Phoenix metropolitan area. While Fry will be the chair of the foundation, there are several other well-known hockey personalities involved including Grabner, Jason Demers and Greg Adams, who all spent time playing for the Coyotes during their professional careers.

The foundation aims to accrue a $10,000,000 endowment over the next five to 10 years to sustain youth hockey, which can be expensive to play and maintain. This announcement comes shortly after Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo pledged to continue supporting youth hockey in the Grand Canyon State in a recent news conference.

Despite losing its NHL team, it is clear hockey gained a large enough following in Arizona for swift efforts to be made to preserve the sport. Even though there are no guarantees that the NHL will return – albeit the organization has been given a five-year window to begin building a new arena – the sport’s growth in the desert can continue.

Sean Brennan(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sean Brennan expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Brennan is a football, hockey and baseball writer for Walter Cronkite Sports Network and has interned with the California Collegiate League.

Daniella Trujillo(she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Daniella Trujillo expects to graduate in spring 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in digital audiences. Trujillo has interned as a sports photographer and videographer for BJ Media.