‘Is Mat Ishbia available?’ Coyotes fans seek silver lining in possible NHL expansion, new ownership

The NHL can thrive in a Sun Belt state, as symbolized by sun beams breaking through the Florida Panthers’ Amerant Bank Arena. The Panthers won their first Stanley Cup Monday. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – As Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, former Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo also gave some fans a reason to cheer on the opposite side of the Sun Belt.

Meruelo decided to step away from the franchise Monday, marking the end of an era for a major league hockey in Arizona, for now at least, following his sale of the team in April. While some have often bemoaned the idea of hockey in the desert, the Florida-based franchises show that the heat doesn’t melt NHL hopes in the sunshine.

With the Tampa Bay Lighting and Florida Panthers added as NHL expansion teams in 1992 and 1993, respectively, the Coyotes were formed when the Winnipeg Jets relocated to the desert in 1996. As the Panthers just added a championship to their resume, the Lightning boast three, coming off of back-to-back wins in 2020 and 2021.

The Coyotes never made a Stanley Cup Final appearance, and their sole end-of-year success is represented in a 2011-12 season in which the team captured its only division title and conference final appearance. Still, the Lighting and Panthers prove that a hockey team in Arizona isn’t a lost cause. Before the team’s recent title, the Panthers were seen in a similar light to the Coyotes within the league.

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly has said there is no rush for expansion, hockey fans across the Valley will now grasp on to the possibility as their only hope for the return of the sport to Arizona.

Budding from the NHL’s “Original Six,” the league has gone through several iterations of expansion, starting in 1967. The addition of the Las Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the 2017-18 season marked the league’s first addition since 2000. Sitting at an uneven 31 teams currently, the NHL has yet to establish a clear timetable for the next team to join the league.

In early June, Bettman resisted imminent expansion to 32 teams, but noted that there has been a bevy of interest from various cities during an interview for “Face Off” on NHL Network Radio. Listing Quebec City, Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Omaha, Phoenix will now jump onto the never-ending list of speculation destinations.

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“What you look for for expansion … is you look at the ownership, you look at the arena, you look at the market and you look at if it will enhance the strength of the league,” Bettman said. “Many of those prospective interest-expressers may fit that category … We don’t see an urgency to do it right this moment.”

Having purchased a majority stake in the Coyotes in 2019, Meruelo was granted a five-year exclusive rights window to reactivate the franchise following the sale of the team to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith. As hockey in Tempe rerouted to Salt Lake City, and the Coyotes became the Utah Hockey Club, name pending, Arizona fans await next steps.

Meruelo’s decision to walk away from the franchise comes after the Arizona State Land Department canceled a land auction in North Phoenix that was seen as a “last shot” for the Coyotes to be reactivated in the given period.

“I’m obviously devastated,” said AZ Ice Peoria youth coach Marvin Simmons on the Coyotes departure. “I mean, I was born in 1996, four months later the Yotes played their first game. So, to me, it’s very disappointing. I mean, it broke my heart. It’s an adversity that we’re going to have to overcome as a hockey community to grow the game here in Arizona. It’s obviously devastating, but we’ll manage.”

With Bettman prioritizing ownership in expansion decisions, hope vanished for the possibility of reactivating the Coyotes in Arizona by 2029 with Meruelo at the helm due to his tumultuous tenure as majority owner.

Devoted Coyotes fans stood outside Mullett Arena in April as a symbol of solidarity even though many knew a move was imminent. Now they must wait to see if the NHL will award the Phoenix area a franchise in the future. (File photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

Devoted Coyotes fans stood outside Mullett Arena in April as a symbol of solidarity even though many knew a move was imminent. Now they must wait to see if the NHL will award the Phoenix area a franchise in the future. (File photo by Joseph Eigo/Cronkite News)

After essentially being evicted from Gila River Arena in late 2021, he temporarily moved the team to Arizona State University’s new Mullett Arena ahead of the 2022-23 NHL season. With the 5,000-seat area not being an adequate long-term solution, a new Tempe stadium was proposed and shut down by residents of the city.

Leading up to Thursday’s planned auction for the land, Meruelo failed to acquire a Special Use Permit that would have been required to buy and build a stadium on the north Phoenix lot and ultimately led. ASLD to cancel the anticipated land auction.

While there isn’t a clear plan for the next period of hockey in the Grand Canyon State, some fans see Meruelo’s exit as a step in the right direction. Longtime Coyotes season-ticket holder James Hudson of Goodyear is relieved to see the owner go.

“Good riddance,” Hudson said. “If it means we have to wait longer for an expansion team, that’s fine. This organization has been nothing but heartbreak and disappointment lately, and I would rather feel good about who’s making the important decisions.

“Is Mat Ishbia available?”

(Video by Joseph Furtado/Cronkite News)
Mateo Arenas(he/him/his)
Sports Digital Reporter, Phoenix

Mateo Arenas expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in English. Arenas has written for AZPreps365 and Prep2Prep Sports.

Joseph Furtado JOE-sef fur-TAH-dough
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Joseph Furtado expects to graduate in August 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Furtado recently served as the play-by-play voice of the Baton Rouge Zydeco on WBRZ.