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The Coyotes, Arizona, iniquity, and the future
After Tempe voters overwhelmingly shot down the team's proposed arena deal, the Arizona Coyotes' future in the desert is in peril yet again.
The Arizona Coyotes’ status in the state has been in flux for more than a decade. It’s been on shaky ground essentially since the team went from Phoenix to Glendale, Arizona to a new arena. But after surviving countless city council votes and what’s supposed to be a temporary move to a 5,000-seat arena on the Arizona State campus, their future in the desert is grimmer than it’s ever been after Coyotes’ ownership’s proposed arena in Tempe was voted down Tuesday night.
Everything this Coyotes ownership group has been working towards was this project and the means to secure the team’s future in Arizona for the foreseeable future. This was supposed to be the easiest path to success they’ve ever had, but they didn’t have the votes by a long shot. The Coyotes have been nomads in their own home for so long that their latest residence doesn’t have that attachment to the team and the election results showed that clearly.
My own experiences with the Coyotes from my time spent writing about them at NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk and ever since are humorous in that it was the origin story for a nickname of sorts (“Noted Jerk”) but in my own efforts to make sure I understood what the team and the market was about allowed me to see it is a place worth having a team and it’s a market that does love hockey.
I hear you about attendance and I hear you about how no one cares about hockey there and I’m here to tell you they do care and that any team that’s gone through what the Coyotes have would run into the same kinds of problems. And that’s what’s so difficult about all of this. The issues are identifiable and it’s easy to be sympathetic to the fans…but it’s hockey in a place that barely has water and there’s nothing that makes hockey fans snobbier than provinciality.
Having the home team hop around the area from Phoenix to Glendale to Tempe over the past 25 years-plus, going through owners like people do shoes, and not having a lot of success through the years created the perfect storm for a franchise to struggle. It stinks and it’s not fair. There are dedicated fans there that love the Coyotes and very badly want to keep them there and they’ve been through enough hell already with the myriad problems the franchise has had.
The NHL isn’t new to having things not work out in new places. Going back to the 1970s, teams were born, moved, and occasionally morphed into new ones because they tried somewhere new and it didn’t pan out. You know the list by now and some places that failed long ago became thriving markets later on (California’s Bay Area, Denver, Minneapolis, Winnipeg) while others never got a second shot or ran into similar issues as the Coyotes (Kansas City, Cleveland, Québec City, Atlanta).
For more than a decade, people have been writing the Coyotes’ obituary in Arizona and list of places where they’re supposed to go only slightly changes with time. When they last went through this from 2010 through 2013, when a sale and relocation were legitimately on the table and a city council vote away from happening, the teased cities were Winnipeg and Seattle. When Winnipeg got the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011, that took them off the table. Then Seattle got the expansion Kraken.
Now you’ll see Salt Lake City, Utah and Houston, Texas as the new hotness along with discussion mainstays Québec City and Kansas City. You’ll probably hear a bit about Portland, Oregon or Oklahoma City as well. It’s the unfortunate part of the business to come up with big ideas, but for the first time in a long time, the possibility of it happening is very serious and feels virtually imminent. It would take a bolt from the blue to keep the Coyotes in Arizona at this point and given the way they’ve survived over the years it can’t be ruled out. After all, the NHL has gone to bat in a big way to keep a team in the Phoenix market (one of the 15 biggest markets in the United States) and giving that up would tear at not just Gary Bettman but the rest of the owners in the league.
But this is what stinks about having these conversations, it’s like dating immediately after a breakup. It feels like the right thing to do but it also feels like the worst move you could make. And this isn’t to say you have to grieve for Arizona, it’s just to say this business stinks a lot of the time and this is the ugliest way it can work.
It’s easy to say this was a long time coming, because in the end that’s how it’ll look. But for all the efforts to make it work given the circumstances they had to work with, in the end it’ll look like they never really had a shot at success in the first place. From playing temporarily at America West Arena where it was not built for hockey to moving to Glendale which was not populous enough at the time and too much of a pain in the ass to get to regularly to going to a beautiful college rink in a college town, they tried everything they could and had unending support from the league to try to make it work out.
It’s just so disappointing if this is the end of the NHL in Arizona. It’s a beautiful place to be in the dead of winter. But the mistakes of the past coming due feels inevitable and I’ll be sad to see the Coyotes head to greener pastures. It should’ve been different. It should’ve worked. Maybe someday further down the road it’ll get a better, honest-to-goodness chance to succeed instead of being homebound vagabonds.
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