For those of you who hail from colder, northern climes, it’s sometimes hard to believe hockey does exist in the warm and sunny Sun Belt of the United States. The simple fact that hockey originated on frozen ponds in Canada and the United States doesn’t negate the sport’s growth and burgeoning fan base around North America-especially in “nontraditional” regions.
The 1990’s were a time of exponential growth and franchise movement for the NHL. From the relocation of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado to become the Avalanche to the movement of franchises in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, the NHL attempted to catch the southward and westward demographic changes occurring in the United States. It’s no secret that the U.S. has seen a massive population shift from the traditional northeastern “rust belt” and the upper Midwest to warmer climates as California, Texas and Florida represent a large share of political and economic clout. With the population trends moving, so to has professional sports seen the opportunity to move into the Sun Belt regions to capture new fans.
The NHL relocated the Minnestoa North Stars to Dallas in 1993 and along with other new franchises in warmer climates, attempted to bring hockey to new regions across the United States. Failures did occur, however, as the NHL experiment didn’t come to fruition in Atlanta and the Thrashers moved on to Winnipeg to become the rebirth of the Jets. While hockey purists may have issues with the sport being spread into newer, warmer regional markets, remember this one term: snow birds. I was born in Chicago but grew up in southern California so I too am one of those regional transplants.
Millions of people from California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Carolina originally hailed from colder areas of both the United States and Canada. In fact, I grew up in Palm Springs, California and during the winter more people were from the upper Midwest and Canada then California. Reminder, the Coachella Valley Firebirds’ AHL franchise started playing this season about ten minutes from where I grew up.
My parents and grandparents also lived in the Phoenix area and that same phenomenon occurs in the Valley of the Sun as well. Again, hockey purists may wail and gnash their teeth on the Sun Belt having NHL franchises but let’s point out one fact here: the Kings, Stars, Lightning, Ducks, Avalanche and Hurricanes have all won the Stanley Cup since 1993 and the Florida Panthers made it once to the Stanley Cup finals while the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup since 1967.
Can the Coyotes find a permanent home in the Valley of the Sun?
Notice when I mentioned the successful Sun Belt NHL franchises I did not mention the Arizona Coyotes. Born out of relocation from the original Winnipeg Jets, the Coyotes have wandered around the Arizona desert for the last thirty years-literally and figuratively. Originally located in Phoenix at the America West Arena with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, the Coyotes (renamed the Arizona Coyotes because, well, they weren’t in Phoenix anymore) moved over to the west side of the valley into Glendale and the Gila River Arena.
For eighteen years, the Coyotes called this place home until last year the Glendale City Council decided to not renew their lease, leaving an NHL team without a home to call their own. Apparently, the city of Glendale has more interest in football with the Fiesta Bowl, College Football Playoffs, the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and the upcoming Super Bowl more on their mind than hockey.
Enter the Arizona State Sun Devils. No, they’re not a new NHL team incarnation but a Division One independent hockey team who have an arena available. Originally, the Coyotes and Arizona State University attempted to negotiate a long-term arena deal on the school campus in Tempe which is a short distance east of downtown Phoenix. With their home in Glendale gone this season, the Arizona Coyotes were forced to find a new place to play – and fast.
ASU has a small, 5,000 seat Mullett Arena for the Sun Devil hockey program and the Coyotes will be renters in the smallest venue in the NHL for the next three seasons and an option for a fourth season. If you’ve caught any Coyotes’ home games on television, these games pale in comparison to the traditional large venues around the league but beggars can’t be choosers at this point, right? The Coyotes had to spend $19.7 million dollars just to add a 15,00 square foot locker room facility that would meet NHL standards. Otherwise, hockey superstars would have found themselves changing in facilities reminiscent of their high school and junior hockey days.
The Tempe City Council voted unanimously to allow a movement to build a multi-purpose arena and entertainment district on what’s being called the “Landfill to Landmark” initiative. The reason why – the proposed site currently is a 1.5 million ton garbage landfill site and will need to be cleaned and repurposed before any viable construction can begin. The voters in Tempe will have the final say-so on this project with a ballot referendum on May 16th. One of the biggest selling points that he current Coyotes’ ownership has been stressing is that this will be a $2.1 billion dollar project with over $1.9 billion coming from private funding rather than taxpayer wallets.
If and when completed, the “Tempe Entertainment District” will boast a hockey arena, a theatre, multiple hotels, a residential development project and gambling facilities as well. While this venture seems ambitious to say the least, the future of the Arizona Coyotes as a viable sports franchise in the Phoenix area is at stake. The Coyotes have proposed a 30 year contract to stay in the arena once built with a non-relocation clause added to their goals of staying put.
Sadly for the Coyotes, most of the recent talk over this organization the past decade or so has stemmed from either relocation or the lack of a permanent home to call their own. The Tempe Entertainment District proposal may be the catalyst to not only keep the Coyotes in Phoenix but be a boost to the sagging fortunes on the ice for this franchise. The alternative may force them out and look for a new home in a new city despite direct support from NHL President Gary Bettman and his promise to bring either an All-Star game or the NHL draft to Tempe down the road.