Will this be an “historic” year for the Arizona Coyotes, their last year in Phoenix? That could be a real possibility by the end of this season. Both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the civic officials of the suburb of Glendale have publicly said they are finished with each other when the current contract runs out or sooner. The officials have made it clear; an empty arena, only 13 years old, is much preferable to having the Coyotes as a tenant. Meanwhile Bettman and the Coyotes ownership have pleaded unsuccessfully with the Arizona Legislature to finance a new downtown Phoenix arena and at least some of the local media have agreed with the Legislature’s stand about throwing good money after bad things.
While it appears that the main slap in the face has already been settled, three more missiles have been hurled at the dying animal to speed its passage into NHL history. First was the forced retirement of possibly the greatest player in the Coyotes’ history, Shane Doan. Doan actually wanted to stay and play, just like his 45 year old counterpart, Jaromir Jagr, but the Coyotes, unwilling to recognize that with the advance of modern medicine, tomorrow’s athletes will be able to play at a high quality for a much longer period than the standard retirement age (approximately 35) simply assumed he was a too old player taking up a uniform which could be better used developing a young player and sent him packing.
When you lose arguably your most popular player and even more damnably one of your better players, that’s not going to help attendance. Doan’s retirement will really pack them in. That Doan was one Arizona’s better players at his age upon his forced retirement is not only a tribute to his greatness but also a damnable indictment of the type of player Arizona has drafted over the years and how they develop their young talent. In their entire Phoenix history, they have only iced one contending team. No wonder the Arizona Legislature does not want to help a bunch of consistent losers.
And that brings us to the second nail, the start of the current season. With all the off season changes made, including the forced retirement of Doan and a new coach, the Coyotes find themselves in their usual position, at or near the bottom of the whole NHL standings. As the old cliche says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As of this writing, the Coyotes have yet to win a game, have exactly one point and are dead last in the combined standings of both NHL conferences. That will keep the fans away even more.
And two of the defeats were to supposedly the Coyotes’ new best rival, an expansion team. Since the Coyotes arrived in Phoenix, there has always been the line about “building hockey in the dessert”. Well this year the Coyotes ARE building hockey in the dessert, the Las Vegas Golden Knights dessert. No matter how rough things get for their initial season, the Vegas fans can always look forward to two more points at the expense of their dessert cousins in Arizona. Fans in Arizona are going to love coming to games knowing that.
As if those things are bad enough for the Coyotes, their basketball cousins from the NBA, the Phoenix Suns have turned against them too, nail number three. While Bettman and the Arizona Coyotes ownership were begging for financial assistance for yet another new arena to house both the Coyotes and Suns, the Suns ownership has declared that they would rather renovate their existing arena then share a new one with the Coyotes. (Aside: Are you watching Calgary Flames ownership?). The current Suns arena was where the Coyotes initially played when they arrived in Phoenix. It has always been basketball friendly with less accommodation for a hockey team (though not as bad as the New York Islanders Barclay Center), hence the move of the Coyotes to Glendale.
Now the Suns ownership wants to make their current arena even more basketball friendly at the expense of sharing it again with an NHL team. And when you turn down the chance to go “halfsies” for a new arena with another tenant, it is just another indication of how popular the Coyotes and the NHL are in the state of Arizona.
Lost in all this is the sad fate of people in the Phoenix area who have truly become hockey fans, most notably the star of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews. The problem is there are too few of them. But it will hurt them to lose their team just as much as it would in more hockey friendly cities.
The only question is how much longer will this agony go on for. Barring the miracle that Bettman and the Coyotes ownership seem to believe will happen, the future seems to be over, at least for this time for an NHL team in Phoenix. Currently the two NHL teams with the most serious arena problems are the New York Islanders who have good hopes of building a new arena in the Belmont area and the Arizona Coyotes. One team seems to be going in one direction and the other in the opposite way.