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Back to the future: Arizona Coyotes arena solution may be hiding in plain Sunlight

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May 23, 2023

Don’t tell me hockey won’t work in the desert.

It’s a lazy argument that doesn’t hold weight. 

Just look 300 miles to the northwest at Las Vegas and you see exactly why hockey works where the temperature hits 100 degrees.

Now, if your argument is that hockey doesn’t work without the right ownership, that would be correct, as has been proven time and time again in Arizona. 

Welcome to the plight of the Coyotes for more than two decades.

From the point real estate magnate and hockey novice Steve Ellman got his hands on the team in February of 2001 to the latest “No” vote in Tempe, this team has wandered the desert in a comedy of errors. 

Well, the hockey world isn’t laughing anymore.

Instead, that sound you hear is the ticking of the clock on the league’s time in the Valley of the Sun. 

When owner Richard Burke originally brought the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix in 1996 the newly minted Yotes, for their first two seasons, outdrew both the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins. In the seven seasons the team called America West Arena home, they averaged 14,592 fans per game. Quite the feat when you consider more than a quarter of the seats of the 16,210 in the arena were obstructed view and couldn’t see the goal at the north end of the ice. 

It wasn’t until the ownership change and the trek to the West Valley that cracks truly began to show in the foundation of hockey in Arizona. 

I won’t fully rehash the 20 year saga here that saw them fail under the watchful eye of “The Great One”, almost move to Canada, cycle through myriad owners including the NHL, lose hundreds of millions of dollars, play in a college hockey arena and wind up being spurned by Tempe. Much better writers, like our own Craig Morgan, have done it plenty of times before.

Let’s just sum the entire journey up with one of the Coyotes’ old marketing slogans: It has been hockey the hard way.

But what is the path forward? 

Sure, Houston is a paper tiger claiming it wants the team. Kansas City has a lightly used 16- year-old arena and the blessing of Patrick Mahomes — but no owner — and the Mayor of Hartford is grandstanding by using the love for the Whalers as political gain. But the reality is, the NHL currently has no plan to relocate the team and Alex Meruelo says he isn’t selling. 

This isn’t a sustainable long-term plan, however. It’s a one-year stay of execution on the Arizona experiment. 

That’s why the NHL and Commissioner Gary Bettman have to start the clock on the current ownership group to come up with a viable arena plan. In fact, the clock should strike midnight at the start of the 2023-24 NHL season.

If no plan is in place by then, the league needs to take extreme measures to ensure the future of the franchise. They need to force the sale and reach out to the one man who could actually stabilize things in Phoenix. 

They need to reach out to new Suns owner Mat Ishbia.

Ishbia, through a spokesperson, told PHNX Sports that his group would be open to discussions if the Coyotes were ever to be for sale.

He has the arena and certainly could use another 41 dates a year filled with 15,000-plus fans to pad the bottom line by purchasing concessions and merchandise. The question is, who would foot the bill to once again remodel the Footprint Center? Maybe the NHL might be motivated to pitch in?

It’s not a guarantee but, for the right price, Ishbia would likely be intrigued to add to his sports empire and give him better leverage to land a new building downtown when his lease comes up in 2035. 

The NHL should ensure the price is right, too. That way, the league would save its prime markets for billions in expansion fees while preserving a market in which it has invested heavily for 26 years. 

The time has come for the Meruelo group to prove it can get an arena plan over the finish line, or for the league to take steps toward the next chapter. 

Maybe it will be a chapter that ends right where it began. In downtown Phoenix where hockey thrives in the desert. 

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