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GILBERT — This was it. My dream scenario. I climbed in my car at 10:45 a.m. and arrived at Coyotes practice at 10:52 a.m. It was the shortest commute of my journalism career.
After hundreds of subtle hints, some shameless begging, and some outright badgering – all met with eyerolls – the Coyotes finally caved to my suggestion and moved to Gilbert, my hometown.
Sure, it was only for a day, but the waterfall begins with a single drop.
“You’re welcome,” Coyotes executive Shane Doan said. “It was always about you.”
Of course it was, but I don’t want to gloat.
I have had a bit of a complex about Gilbert ever since Mikkel Boedker’s infamous and hilarious weather report for ABC 15 in 2013. Sadly, the video of that spectacular segment has vanished. The Coyotes don’t have it, ABC 15 can’t access it and every link to it on the web turns up with the video missing, but I will always remember this part.
“In Gilbert, high 82 … there’s not much out in Gilbert,” Boedker said, before realizing his faux pas and delivering a patronizing follow-up. “It’s nice, though.”
Nice. That’s the equivalent of telling someone that their detailed, impassioned, cocktail-party story is “interesting.”
It is nice in Gilbert, and much has changed since I moved here 18 years ago. The population has swelled to about 262,000. The Heritage District downtown is hopping with restaurant choices, the SanTan Village Mall is a hub of commerce, the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch is a respite from the hustle and bustle, Gilbert has the third highest per capita income of any Valley city (it was actually No. 1 until recently), and it is rated as one of the 20 safest cities in America.
You want a legit hot dog stand? Higley Hot Dogs serves up Vienna beef – the only dogs worth eating. They even have ketchup to satisfy the Christian Fischers of the world.
You want BBQ? Check out Joe’s in downtown, or its satellite Joe’s Farm Grill at Agritopia, which also features a cool coffee shop and Barnone, a community of woodworkers, winemakers, beer makers and restaurateurs.
Gilbert also has interesting sports types. 98.7’s Dave Burns lives here, ASU forward Johnny Walker calls it home, and Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson once did as well.
Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said he came up with the idea to hold an open practice here after speaking to community leaders at an engagement. He ran it past GM Bill Armstrong and Doan, and the idea was hatched.
I love the idea. It’s community outreach at a grassroots level. It’s about building bonds, and there sure were lots of bonds being forged in Gilbert, where the weekend crowd turnout was bigger than the open practice that the Coyotes held in Scottsdale on Nov. 19.
“The value of this is that all of those people have a connection to the Coyotes now,” Doan said. “Before, they had a connection to hockey. Now they all have a connection to the Coyotes. That’s what it’s all about. How many kids were there? How many parents were there? How many hockey fans were there?”
Doan should know. He met every one of them. The Valley icon began signing autographs when practice began and he was still doing so when practice ended.
“Do you know how many people come up to me and show me a picture from 10 years ago?” Doan asked. “They’re like, ‘Hey, this is a picture I took with you.’ They’ll hold onto it and remember it, so 10 years from now, people will say, ‘Hey, do you remember this? Ten years ago, I was in Gilbert with you. It’s a connection forever, whereas if we’re not there, there’s no connection.”
Hopefully, the Coyotes will continue this trend – wherever they are playing in 2022-23 and beyond. It should not be limited to Scottsdale and Gilbert. They should do this in Peoria, in Chandler, at Arcadia in Phoenix, and in every rink in Arizona, including new ones that appear to be back on the table in north Phoenix and Tucson.
I think I just heard Stan Wilson and the equipment staff groan at the thought of this, so the trip should include a free meal from a local eatery for the organization’s hardest working staff members.
Look, the Coyotes already engage in an enormous amount of community work, and all of it matters in different ways. In terms of building their brand, however, this sort of event is solid gold. It didn’t matter to anyone at the rink that the Coyotes were in last place in the NHL standings. There were smiles from one end of the building to the other. It was a heart-warming reminder of the power of sports.
(Photo at top of story courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)
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