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Neutral zone: Impending arena site offers Coyotes, Meruelo Group one last chance

Craig Morgan Avatar
December 3, 2023
An artist rendering of the Coyotes proposed arena in Tempe.

Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez told PHNX Sports on Tuesday that the team expects to announce its chosen arena site by the end of the calendar year, or shortly thereafter.

While much speculation has centered on the northwest Mesa site on which the team executed a letter of intent in August, multiple sources familiar with the process told PHNX that the team is zeroing in on a parcel of land in northeast Phoenix, adjacent to Scottsdale, where state trust land is available.

Earlier in the process, Gutierrez made it clear that Phoenix was one of the municipalities that the Coyotes would consider, provided the site was located in the eastern portion of the city, closer to the majority of the team’s season-ticket holder base, and closer to the wealth and corporate bases of the city, along the 101 corridor that extends from north Phoenix and Scottsdale down through Tempe and Chandler.

PHNX has reported multiple times over the past two months that Phoenix was in strong consideration, and more recently, that it was indeed the other location (aside from Mesa) that had risen to the top of the list of possibilities. 

While this particular site would not be an ideal arena location for the franchise’s considerable amount of season-ticket holders in the southern portion of the Southeast Valley — the commute is just as long to Glendale, given traffic patterns at rush hour — the site is closer to the greatest wealth concentration of the city in north Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, and it creates easier access for fans in the northwest Valley cities of Glendale and Peoria. 

More importantly, the site offers a potential solution after voters shot down the team’s proposed Tempe arena and entertainment district proposal in May. It may also be the Meruelo Group’s last chance to clear the franchise’s greatest and most persistent hurdle — one that has dogged every ownership group and dates back to the late 1990s when original owner Richard Burke determined that the team could not survive financially as a tenant at then-America West Arena in downtown Phoenix. 

Sources within the NHLPA and NHL Board of Governors said that both groups want to see this situation resolved by the end of the 2023-24 NHL season. NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh, who has multiple political connections in Arizona from his days as the mayor of Boston, recently told media that he is troubled by what he is hearing about the Coyotes’ efforts toward a new arena.

“I was hoping that would be further along right now, in what they’re going to do next,” Walsh told media at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in Toronto in November. “We met with them. I went there at the end of the season. They had promised they were going to work on some stuff. Right now, it’s just speculation. There’s nothing concrete… I’d love to see more action.”

While the league has not set a firm deadline and there could be some wiggle room if the Coyotes are showing genuine progress, NHL commissioner has mentioned a couple of dates. At the NHL Draft this summer, he suggested a final announcement could come by the All-Star break, and later expanded that timeline to the first quarter of 2024, which roughly coincides with the end of the NHL’s regular season.

That timeline syncs with the timeline Gutierrez has consistently floated. And while the announcement of the chosen site should come sooner, sources told PHNX that the final, granular details of the project — details the league will need to see — align with that later timeline.

Both the league and the Board of Governors have made it clear that there is no appetite to allow the team to continue playing at 4,600-seat (for NHL games) Mullett Arena beyond the timeline (three to five years) originally laid out when the team moved to Mullett.

Per sources, the new arena site would allow the Coyotes to remain close to the same construction timeline as the Tempe site, provided they are able to close on the deal. The Tempe site would have required significant remediation of a dump site that former Tempe mayors Hugh Hallman and Neil Giuliano said is highly problematic for the city. That clean-up would have delayed the start of arena construction for at least six to eight months.

The new arena site would include a majority of the same elements as the proposed Tempe site, which included residences, hotels, restaurants and shops, a sports book and a practice rink adjacent to the arena. As previously reported, the Coyotes hope to structure the deal in a manner that will avoid a public vote, but the team would still need some tax abatements to offset the construction cost so it is unclear how they will bridge those two realities.

As for Mullett Arena, while the Coyotes originally signed a three-year agreement to play games at ASU’s arena, ASU CFO Morgan Olsen said at the time that the university was open to extending that agreement on a year-to-year basis should the Coyotes need it.

“No one should be confused that this is going to be their home ice forever,” Olsen said. “It’s not our plan and it’s certainly not their plan for obvious reasons. But they said, ‘We’re just not sure how long this might take. We’ve built a couple of sports venues ourselves and those are complicated, they are hard and it takes a long time.’ So it made sense to us that there might have to be a little bit of flexibility here.

“What we asked the Board [of Regents] for was the authorization to extend additional one-year options if we so choose. Within reason, we’ll be flexible and work with them.”

Coyotes defenseman Juuso Välimäki and forward Matias Maccelli are both wearing full shields after being struck in the mouth by shots.
Coyotes defenseman Juuso Välimäki stands next to forward Matias Maccelli before a faceoff against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. Both players are wearing full shields after shots struck them in the mouth recently. (Getty Images)

Välimäki’s big scare

Juuso Välimäki didn’t feel anything in the moment. He was just doing his job when he turned right into Dallas defenseman Jani Hakanpää’s one-timer from the point. It hit him squarely in the mouth. No deflection. No padding. No obstruction at all.

“It was a 93-mile-an-hour one-timer to the face,” Välimäki said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about it afterwards, but the craziest thing is that when it happened, I didn’t feel anything. You’d think that you’d be in so much pain, but at the moment, you don’t feel a thing.

“I didn’t even know I was bleeding until [Matt Dumba] was like, ‘Bro, you gotta get off the ice here.’ And then everything kind of went dark for a second. I was like, ‘What’s happening? Where am I?’ And he’s like, ‘Get off the ice!’ Once I got off, I kind of realized what was happening.”

Välimäki officially lost three teeth and a lot of blood. He could lose four more teeth if they don’t heal properly. After surgery the night of the incident in a Dallas hospital, he has stitches and a splint in his mouth but he says he no longer has any pain from an incident that occurred 19 days ago.

“We numbed it right away when I got in the room and after I got to the hospital, I certainly needed some meds for the pain,” he said. “But yeah, no pain now, and you kind of get used to how weird everything feels in your mouth.”

Välimäki knows the risks of playing a position where he has to stand in front of the net, but he never had a moment of pause when he returned to action on Thursday against Colorado at Mullett Arena — just two weeks after the injury.

“There have been some terrible things that we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks that have happened on the ice so when that kind of thing happens to myself as well, I don’t think I ever really thought about it until then,” he said. “But even with that, when I was going back in, I was able to kind of feel positive throughout the whole thing.

“I only missed two weeks of hockey. I only lost a couple of teeth. They were small things in a sense. My eyes, my nose, my big jaw, my throat, everything is fine. Realistically, it could have been so much worse so I think that’s kind of been the perspective that I’ve taken: ‘I’m lucky that I’m playing again after two weeks.'”

Välimäki will wear a full shield for the foreseeable future because there are parts of his mouth that still require a significant amount of healing. Given that scary moment, I asked Välimäki if he would consider wearing the full shield permanently if allowed.

“I can’t wait to take it off,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been asked, ‘Are you gonna wear it for the rest of your career?’ No, I’m taking it off the second I can.”

Hockey players are a different breed.

Coyotes center Travis Boyd will miss multiple weeks with an upper-body injury.
Coyotes center Travis Boyd celebrates scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at Mullet Arena. (Getty Images)

Boyd’s bad luck

Travis Boyd has endured a lot this season. The Coyotes placed the forward on waivers just before the season began to create flexibility, and Boyd was wholly unprepared for that move.

“Travis was shocked and pretty beaten up over it,” a source close to him said.

Boyd played just four October games and he has been a healthy scratch seven times this season. Through it all, coach André Tourigny said Boyd has been an exemplary pro.

Just as Boyd got an opportunity to reclaim a regular role after injuries to centers Barrett Hayton and Jack McBain, he suffered another setback when Colorado defenseman Josh Manson slammed him into the boards and a linesman midway through the third period of a game on Thursday at Mullett Arena. 

Tourigny said that the upper-body injury is long-term in nature.

“We’re not talking day to day,” he said. “We’re talking weeks.”

Boyd had goals in each of his past two games and four points in his past six. Tourigny was beside himself when discussing the tough break, in light of all that Boyd has endured this season.

“He was playing really good hockey for us,” Tourigny said. “I have a lot of good things to say about him. He changed his role from the last two years when he played a lot on top six. This year, he had to play a bottom-six [role] and be very responsible defensively and he was an example. We were joking a lot when talking about Coach Boyd. He was so textbook on his positioning and on everything defensively.

“There’s unsung heroes sometimes in games. I probably jinxed it because at the last morning skate against Colorado, I talked to him to tell him ‘I need to find you more ice time. You deserve more ice time. I need to put you out there more and you’re playing really good hockey.’ I feel terrible for him as a person and it’s a loss as a player.”

Coyotes forward Alex Kerfoot carries the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Nov. 16. (Getty Images)

Kerfoot finds his footing

Alex Kerfoot won’t argue with you if you suggest that he was a non-factor in the first seven games of the season. He had no points, his line wasn’t driving play and the penalty killing unit was struggling. Many of the criticisms that dogged him last season in Toronto appeared real.

Sixteen games later, you can make a strong argument that Kerfoot has been the most impactful of the Coyotes’ three big, unrestricted free-agent signings that also include Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker. 

Kerfoot has 12 points in his past 16 games, he has filled in admirably at center given the current injury situation, he has taken over Barrett Hayton’s spot on the power play, and he has helped the PK rise from near the bottom of the NHL rankings to No. 15. Kerfoot is as advertised: a jack-of-all-trades.

“‘It’s funny because we were expecting that before the start of the season,” Tourigny said. “We had a coaches and GM meeting in Chicago and [Maple Leafs coach] Sheldon Keefe told me, ‘You will like him.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, I think we’ll like him,’ and he said, ‘No no, no. You don’t understand. You will love him. He is really good in every situation. He’s in every game and he competes and he’s such a brain.’ Everything he said I can copy and paste: system, structure, awareness, urgency, leadership, maturity, he’s got it all.”

NHL’s unofficial in-season tournament

The NBA probably deserves more credit for innovation than any other North American sports league, but as soccer aficionados have accurately noted, its attempt to replicate soccer’s in-season tournament has fallen flat for several reasons.

Simply re-labeling regular season games that you would see anyway doesn’t add much flavor, even if you think the re-designed courts look cool. There is no random draw like soccer, and the tournament does not involve teams from other levels of basketball as soccer does. That last element is perhaps the coolest element of soccer’s model. Imagine some team from the G League pulling off a one-in-a-million, Miracle-on-Ice type of upset in the NBA.

Which brings me to the NHL. Critics will tell you that the NHL is the least innovative of the major North American sports. It’s a nuanced discussion that doesn’t always hold water, given the introduction of 3-on-3 overtime, the shootout and other elements unique to hockey.

The NHL does not have an in-season tournament, but unlike the NBA, it could add one easily because it has 32 teams so it could construct brackets in a single-elimination, four-round, winner-take-all event. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but in my imaginary world, the Coyotes are already competing in one and doing quite well.

In this imaginary in-season tournament, the most recent six Cup champs — call them the Stanley Six — are awarded a spot in the exclusive tournament, with one underdog thrown into the ring to provide excitement and intrigue. The NHL has no greater underdog than the Coyotes, given their year-to-year fight to simply exist.

The tournament, which we’re calling the Select Seven, is simple pool play. Each team plays every other team in the pool once. The winner is determined by overall record with several tiebreakers such as goal differential employed.

The prize? An automatic first-round pick in the draft at the end of the season, no lower than No. 5. If the winning team is also a draft lottery team at the end of the season and earns a top-five pick in the lottery, that means it gets two top-five picks.

That would be one hell of a prize if the NHL ever went to a 32-team tournament, but for now, let’s look at how the Coyotes are faring in my arbitrary in-season tournament.

To make things harder on the underdog, the NHL scheduled the first five of Arizona’s six games in pool play consecutively. The Coyotes have already won the first four games against Vegas (2023 Cup champs), Tampa Bay (2020, 2021) Colorado (2022) and St. Louis (2019), making them the first team since 1944 (and 4th ever) to win four-plus straight against the past five Stanley Cup champs.

The Coyotes will face Washington (2018) on Monday, and then get a two-game break (if you consider Boston at TD Garden a break) before completing pool play with a game at PPG Paints Arena against Pittsburgh (2016, 2017) on Dec. 12.

Things are looking good for the Coyotes’ in-season tournament title hopes. They’re 4-0 with two games to go.

Top artist rendering of Coyotes’ proposed Tempe arena courtesy of Arizona Coyotes

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