Hockey in the Desert? It’s More Likely than You Think.

When you say there is a hockey team in Arizona, those unfamiliar with the NHL might laugh. It seems somewhat ludicrous, a hockey team? A professional team for a sport played on ice in the middle of the desert? It seems like the most implausible thing, but it isn’t. In 1996, the Winnipeg Jets changed their name to the Coyotes and relocated to Phoenix, Arizona. It was all a part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to expand hockey viewership by encouraging the placement of teams in non-traditional sun-belt markets. Currently, the team plays in Glendale, Arizona, at the Gila River Arena. 

The Coyotes have been a team mired with negativity as of late. The team struggles with attendance numbers, maintaining personnel, staying competitive, and even keeping a positive work environment. In 2020, they were stripped of their early-round draft picks because their then GM, John Chayka, who resigned in July before the draft, had met with prospects before the combine, which is not allowed. With their first remaining pick that year, the Coyotes selected Mitchell Miller. In Ohio, Miller was convicted by the juvenile court for the racist abuse and bullying of a disabled Black classmate, Isaiah Meyers-Crothers. Miller never issued an apology to the Meyers-Crothers family even though he wrote an apology letter to all 31 NHL teams who might consider drafting him. Several teams scouting groups had zoom calls with Miller and found him unremorseful for his actions; this group of teams included the Coyotes at one point. However, they still chose to draft Miller. The hockey world rightfully reacted in outrage, and the Coyotes renounced their rights to Miller. 

The Coyotes woes didn’t end there, shortly after reports started to surface that players had not been given their bonuses. Katie Strang, of The Athletic, published an article titled “Dysfunction in the desert: Finger-pointing, fear and financial woes roil the Coyotes organization” in February of 2021. In that article, Strang detailed how the Coyotes’ workplace is toxic despite the instance from the owner and CEO alike that the organization is a family. 

Now, they have their newest melodrama; just a few days after the NHL squashed reports that the organization was for sale, reports came out that the Coyotes had not paid their rent to the city of Glendale to use Gila River Arena. There was a genuine chance that the Coyotes would be locked out of their own arena.

The Coyotes and their failures are an interesting case study in the results of Commissioner Bettman’s strategy to expand the NHL. He focused on non-traditional hockey markets like Anaheim, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Tampa, Nashville, Florida (Sunrise), Atlanta, San Jose, North Carolina, Las Vegas, and Arizona. His strategy was simple: find new fans in these markets that have yet to be targeted, especially with how poorly marketed the league has been for years. However, this method was not universally successful, despite its success in specific markets, namely Colorado, Dallas, North Carolina, Nashville, Las Vegas, and Tampa. 

As previously stated, many of those expansion teams sans Atlanta (which relocated to Winnipeg) and Arizona have been pretty successful. They have cultivated unique but passionate fan bases and have won cups or experienced large-scale competitive success. However, there seems to be a hold-up for the Coyotes. Why can’t the Coyotes succeed? If they continue to operate at this level, would it be viable to move the NHL’s least valuable franchise to another market like Quebec City or Houston? 

  Many people will roll their eyes and scoff; of course, an ice hockey team in the desert wouldn’t work, that doesn’t take rocket science to figure out. But there are some points to be made in favor of keeping the Coyotes in Arizona. 

  1.  Toronto Maple Leafs Star Center, Auston Matthews, is from Scottsdale, Arizona, and was inspired to start hockey after attending multiple Coyotes games. If the Coyotes didn’t exist, Auston Matthews might never have decided to play hockey, and we would know him as an MLB star instead, or maybe we wouldn’t know him at all. He is a living example of how the Yotes have grown the game. 
  2. The owner, Alex Meruelo, and the CEO, Xavier Gutierrez, are the first Latino NHL owner and CEO, respectively. They have expressed commitment to connecting the Latinx community, which makes up 42% of Phoenix. 
  3. The Coyotes are currently tanking and could land a star player in either Shane Wright or Connor Bedard. That star player could be what is needed to draw eyes to the team in the local market. 
  4. On a superficial note, the Coyotes’ Kachina jerseys are some of the most incredible jerseys in the league, and losing those would be a shame. 

So now that we’ve examined the advantages of keeping the Coyotes in Arizona and under current management, let’s look at the defects. 

  1. The management group has created what has been referred to by some workers as a “shit show”. From berating a 20-year employee in front of the entire staff to not paying vendors and refusing to pay rink workers during the Covid-19 pandemic after promising to pay them, the Coyotes organization has created a reportedly toxic workplace. They also laid off most of the workers they promised to retain during the pandemic. 
  2. The Coyotes have failed to gain sustained success or even rise above mediocrity for their entire existence. 
  3. The Coyotes are currently the least valuable franchise in the NHL and have been bailed out by the league many times. It makes them more vulnerable to being purchased. Most prospective purchasers want to move the team because it hasn’t been profitable in Arizona for the past 25 years. If multiple owners and front offices have failed to profit the team, then the potential buyers don’t think their odds are much better. Like it or not, money drives professional sports owners more than the love of the sport. Other markets, especially Quebec City, which wants another team and is a traditional market, seem extra appealing. Houston is also an option since it is the largest city without an NHL team, and the Dallas Stars have proved that Texas can support a successful NHL franchise. 
  4.  The team doesn’t have an arena. They failed to pay their rent on time and were almost evicted, which further soured their relationship with the city of Glendale. The city does not plan to extend the Coyotes agreement to play in the Gila River arena, which ends after this season. 
  5.  Rinks suitable to host an NHL team are in short supply in a desert state which has not taken to hockey like other non-traditional markets. The city of Glendale is unlikely to grant or support measures for the Coyotes to construct a new stadium in Glendale. It has been reported that the Coyotes have moved on to propose the construction of a 1.7 billion dollar development which will include a new stadium to the City of Tempe. The city of Tempe said they are evaluating the project but have not returned a clear yes or no verdict needed for the Coyotes’ security. Craig Morgan of PHNX sports recently revealed that Coyotes don’t have the votes in Tempe’s city council.  
  6. No matter where they build the new arena, the Coyotes will need a new temporary place to play while it is being built. Most stadiums, including Arizona State’s D1 arena, only seat 5,000 people. That is very small compared to every other NHL arena and will continue to perpetuate the Coyotes financial struggles. 
  7.  The Coyotes and current management now have a negative reputation. They do not pay bills on time: from their taxes to their vendors and players. The Coyotes organization has a reputation of not being trustworthy. What then inspires players to sign with them? What incentive does Tempe have to approve a 1.7 billion dollar project for a team that has failed to pay back Glendale and has also failed in the long term to generate any revenue from ticket sales? The history that the Coyotes, especially this management group, have will make it extremely difficult to garner support from government parties, new employees, vendors, and players. 
  8. From a pure hockey perspective, it is unclear if the Coyotes have the systems to develop top prospects well. They drafted in the top three in 2015, selecting Dylan Strome. Even though he had potential, the Coyotes failed to develop Strome properly. The Coyotes have amassed multiple draft picks and will probably select a high first-round prospect due to their performance this season. However, no matter the prospect’s potential or the number of picks, that franchise-saving star will never appear if you don’t develop players properly. 

It is important to note how these aspects are weighted when looking at the list. Growing the game and expanding the audience of hockey is so important, but does it outweigh all the Coyote’s issues? There are so many benefits for the game to leaving the Coyotes where they are, but incompetent management groups and poor marketing by the NHL have made it difficult for those benefits to existing. Can hockey in the desert work? Absolutely. Is it working right now? Absolutely not.

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