Perhaps it would be too simplistic and cliché to say that prior to 1996, Arizona was a desert when it came to hockey. In fact, it would not be entirely true. Along with the cactus, mountains, canyons and ancient Navajo ruins, there’s been hockey in some form or another in Arizona for decades.
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Those who have been around for years remember the days when greater Phoenix – a sprawling, rapidly-expanding metropolitan area of more than four million people – had just two sheets of indoor ice. (It probably goes without saying that in a place where summer temperatures of 115 degrees or more are not uncommon, there were no outdoor ice sheets to be found.)
But that was before the NHL came to town. That was before those days in the red-hot summer of ’96 when the Winnipeg Jets franchise was loaded into moving trucks and set a course on a southwesterly heading for the Valley of the Sun. And everything changed, in a hurry.
“When the Coyotes got here, there were limited options and there was a waiting list just to get into the sport,” said Bob Strong, director of the Sonoran Youth Hockey League, which encompasses more than 50 teams throughout Arizona. “There was not enough ice to accommodate the number of kids wanting to play. We went from two single-sheet facilities to eight sheets of ice over the course of four or five years.”
The Jets set up shop in downtown Phoenix, re-branded themselves the Coyotes and got to work making this desert boomtown a hockey boomtown. They were a hit right from the start, despite playing in a building designed for basketball, where you couldn’t see one net from hundreds of seats.
Led by stars like Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the team made four straight trips to the NHL playoffs, where opponents were greeted by eerie “whiteout” crowds of 16,000 screaming Coyotes fans clad in white. It was quite a sight.
But if you believe the naysayers you heard from last summer, when there was a big push (in some circles) to move the Coyotes back to Canada, it didn’t work, right?
“There’s just no interest in hockey in Arizona,” seemed to be the common refrain among a certain noisy but less-informed crowd. Not so, say those in the know about Arizona hockey.
“The kids here that do play the game are just as hard-core as anywhere else in the country,” said Scott Storkan, the Coyotes director of hockey development. “The elite travel hockey players here are just as talented as the best of the best that you’d find in Minnesota or Michigan or Massachusetts. At the very top, there’s not a huge difference in the talent level.”
Now in his fourth season with the Coyotes, Storkan is the man charged with acting as a liaison between the NHL team and the amateur hockey community in the state. It’s a relationship you can see everywhere on a visit to the Coyotes palatial suburban home rink, Jobing.com Arena. There are sweaters from amateur teams like the Flagstaff North Stars, Prescott Storm and Tucson’s popular University of Arizona Icecats club are on display in the concourse. And from the moment you walk in the door, you are greeted by the kids in their hockey sweaters selling 50/50 tickets to raise money for their local programs.
During a home game versus the Wild in early December, Mitchell Lyon, 16, worked the upper concourse with his mother, Audra, selling tickets for the nightly raffle, which they expected would net between $1,500 to $2,000 for his hockey team, the Roadrunners, based in nearby Peoria.
The attendance level for the Coyotes took a nosedive early in the 2009-10 season, hurt in large part by the uncertainty lurking due to ownership turmoil and relocation rumors. On this particular night, a paid audience of nearly 10,000 would be announced for a shutout win by the home team, while Lyon and his teammates would take home a nice check for their fund-raising efforts.
In an area dominated by baseball, basketball and football, the long-term survival of the Coyotes in the desert is closely tied to the growth of youth hockey throughout the Southwest.
“We’ll always have hockey here, but it would be harder to draw new players without the Coyotes,” said Lyon. “They’re a big influence on hockey in the state, and they help get rid of that perception that there’s no hockey in the desert.”
Down in the Coyotes locker room after the game, team members celebrated a gritty win and talked about doing the best thing that they can to help grow hockey in Phoenix and throughout Arizona. For a team that hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2002, the answer lies in scoring more goals than the other team on a more consistent basis.
“I think the fans that we have are very, very loyal,” said Coyotes forward Peter Mueller. “If any team wins, fans are going to come, and that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re starting to see more and more fans coming through the door, and as players we thrive on that.”
And he sees a direct correlation between more fans in the stands and more kids taking strides on ice for the first time.
“It’s the desert, and it’s obviously not the number one sport that people here grow up playing,” said Mueller, an alumnus of the National Team Development Program. “But you look around the communities and hockey is growing as we speak, so it’s good to see the development of hockey in Arizona.”
Storkan and the Coyotes play a big role in that development via their Kids First Hockey program. Working with USA Hockey and the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association, they purchased $50,000 worth of hockey gear that kids between ages 4 and 8 can use, free of charge, while getting a month of complimentary ice time to try hockey for the first time.
“It’s a great program because it lets you put a ton of kids through hockey, get them on the ice and then from there they can go where they want to,” said Storkan, noting that 1,500 Arizona children took their first strides on an ice sheet in 2009 thanks to Kids First Hockey.
“Some might just be interested in skating, which is beneficial for the rinks and their open skating programs. If they’re interested in hockey that benefits all of us.”
After a decade-long boom in participation levels, the number of kids playing hockey in Arizona has leveled off a bit, but Strong said that’s due in large part to the fact that, like back in 1996, there are waiting lists of kids wanting to try the sport, and there is only so much ice time to go around. Those waiting lists come from successful efforts like his, and those of the Coyotes, to grow the game.
“The Coyotes do a tremendous job of promoting youth hockey,” Strong said. “The organization is really committed to youth hockey in Arizona. There are a lot of young kids playing today that would not be playing if the Coyotes weren’t here.”
Just as encouraging is the comeback at the box office by the Coyotes, where crowds are growing as the ownership situation solidifies, the relocation rumors subside, and the team makes a serious push for the playoffs.
On Arizona’s most prominent hockey rink, a true home ice advantage is rapidly returning. And that’s a good thing that can be felt at hockey rinks all over the state.
Jess Myers is a contributing editor to InsideCollegeHockey.com.