It was 1996 when the Winnipeg Jets flew in and became the Phoenix Coyotes. Now Arizona Coyotes, the team has taken roots in the desert and is starting to blossom as a place for hockey. By the end of this upcoming season, it will 20 years that the NHL has had the Coyotes in Arizona. Most people don’t see Arizona as a traditional hockey market, and they are correct, it certainly isn’t. Some people still don’t think hockey is going to work in the desert but they are certainly wrong.
The state of Arizona has had some form of hockey dating back to 1974 when the Western Hockey League (WHL) was still around at the professional level before merging with the NHL. The team was the Phoenix Roadrunners, they played out of the Arizona Veteran Memorial Coliseum fop three seasons. The first season they lost in the quarter finals to the Quebec Nordiques (now known as the Colorado Avalanche). The Road Runners second season, the team finished second in the west but failed to make it past preliminaries. After the third season the Road Runners folded because their off ice situation was not as good as their on ice situation. Once the team folded, Arizona didn’t see professional hockey again until the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets. Since then hockey has grown and there is evidence of this in several different places and for several different reasons.
Youth hockey has been growing rapidly in the state of Arizona, from 1991 to 2001 there was a 179% increase youth hockey. Even better is that those players that grew up watching the Coyotes are now getting to be draft eligible. In the upcoming 2016 draft, Scottsdale’s Auston Matthews is looking to be drafted first overall. This would make him latest first overall American drafted since Patrick Kane. Matthews is a 6’1 center that is said to be an elite talent as is in the same class of skill as Patrick Kane. Which there is no doubt about that because he smashed Patrick Kane’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) scoring record. Matthews was brought up through Arizona youth hockey programs before going to the NTDP at the age of 17. Why such an elite talent is coming from a non-traditional market could be partially due to the number of professional hockey players retiring in Arizona and taking part in the youth programs.
There are several former NHL hockey players that fell in love with Arizona, possibly the weather or maybe the sunsets. I could understand not having to deal terrible snow and being able to escape the summer, why wouldn’t a millionaire retire in the 48th state? Players like Tyson Nash, Derek Morris, Ray Whitney and Mike Madano, to name a few, have decided to make the valley their home. Some coach and some come out to interact with the young players. Regardless of their role, their impact on youth hockey is more than people notice.
Finally, growth can be seen at hockey events and not just at the games. The Arizona Coyotes attendance numbers have come down a little, coinciding with off the ice issues, but the team still manages to average 13,000 fans a season for home games. That number is steadily increasing, fans have been renewing season tickets and sales have not been declining. Outside of game fans coming out to watch players and support the team. During the teams draft party at Gila River Arena, there was approximately 1,000 or more fans that showed up (judging by my eye count). Recently, the Arizona Coyotes held their annual development program, which was open to the public. On a weekday three afternoons, the prospects drew in a standing room only crowd at their practice facility, The Ice Den in Scottsdale.
Other notables about the growth of hockey in the desert is Henrik Samuelsson, also hails from Scottsdale Arizona. He was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes, along with Brendan Burke, who was also drafted by the Coyotes in a later draft. Seven Arizona players were drafted for the Western Hockey League. There has even been growth at the collegiate level, the Arizona State University hockey team will soon compete at the division one level in the NCAA.