Coyotes fans face the end in Arizona with anger toward Salt Lake City, appreciation of hockey’s impact (2024)

Tempe, Ariz. • The fans came early to the funeral.

With three hours left before the opening faceoff of the Arizona Coyotes’ last game in the state it has called home for 27 years, fans started to arrive outside the gates of the small, 5,000-seat stadium on the campus of Arizona State University.

This funeral at Mullett Arena had a bounce castle, beer pong tables, and even a booth set up to shave mullet haircuts into the scalps of the truly dedicated — but these inanities mostly went unused.

Instead, people grieved. Some stood outside their cars in the arena’s parking garage, tailgating for the game. Some gathered at the point closest to the arena’s entrance they were allowed. Many cried. But they all told stories, sharing with others who had this passion in their lives: NHL hockey.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Arizona Coyotes players acknowledge the fans after the final whistle in Tempe Wednesday. Team owner Alex Meruelo agreed to sell franchise's hockey operations to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, who intends to move the team to Salt Lake City.

This week, that passion was taken away by team owner Alex Meruelo’s decision to end this Coyotes’ chapter in Arizona. The NHL has “deactivated” the Coyotes and transferred all of its players and hockey assets to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, who will move the team to Utah in time for next October’s season opener.

Utah’s gain is Arizona’s pain. And while our state looks to welcome NHL hockey to our area — for which Utahns are understandably thrilled — it’s worth understanding the toll it will take elsewhere.

Anger among the grieving

To be sure, the primary emotion for many Coyotes fans was anger.

“It was a big blow to a fan base who’s been super mistreated,” said Luke Warren, of the Coyotes Corner podcast. “For years, I mean, just league-wide we’ve been at the end of so many jokes, with the arena instability and our ownership. It’s just been a mess.”

Fans felt betrayed by Meruelo’s lack of transparency about the process. As recently as April 4, the team released new renderings of its proposed Phoenix-area stadium plans, leading fans to grow hope that they might have a permanent home in Arizona. Instead, just six days later, reports surfaced that the team being moved to Salt Lake City was the likely option.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Arizona Coyotes fans start to find their seats at Mullett Arena prior to the team's game.

That anger could be seen in signs around the arena — one, for example, said that Meruelo was “losing his religion” by moving the team. Others were befuddled that Meruelo’s stadium plan on the Phoenix and Scottsdale border wasn’t as solid as Meruelo and the franchise made it seem. When the national anthem was sung, a substantial number of fans yelled to echo “Still there!” upon the words’ recitation.

But that anger was also targeted toward Salt Lake City, the Coyotes’ new home. “Salt Lake Sucks” might have been the night’s second-most common chant behind only “Let’s Go Coyotes.” I overheard one fan complaining about peeling numbers on his jersey; he jokingly said it must be “Salt Lake City manufacturing” causing the defect.

The players, though, disagreed with the Salt Lake City-oriented negativity.

“Among the group, obviously, there’s no hate towards Salt Lake City,” winger Josh Doan said. “Because they’re welcoming us with open arms. ... The people there had nothing to do with it.”

Will Arizona’s youth hockey suffer? Will Utah’s boom?

Hockey fans in Arizona have repeated one catchphrase over and over again over the last two weeks, as their franchise’s future has been in increasing doubt: “Hockey belongs in the desert.”

It’s meant to be a knowing wink to the haters: The icy sport is obviously an awkward contrast to the blistering heat here, at least on paper. But after over a generation in Arizona, the Coyotes have built a passionate fanbase that has made hockey a cultural presence in the state.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Arizona Coyotes' Dylan Guenther skates past fans as players warm up. The Coyotes are moving to Salt Lake City in a deal that could be signed less than 24 hours after the game. Hockey could return, perhaps within five years, but the stark reality is this is the end for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the shining jewel of Arizona hockey: its burgeoning youth program. Auston Matthews, the 2016 No. 1 pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs stunned observers this NHL season by scoring 69 goals — the most by any NHL player in 28 seasons. The 26-year-old is a product of the Arizona Coyotes’ presence. “I lived about five minutes from the practice rink the Coyotes used, so there were lots of options, a lot of different programs. I just picked one and got into it,” Matthews told SportsNet.

On Wednesday, the state of youth hockey was a major worry at Mullett Arena. Of the 5,000 in attendance, a significant portion were youth hockey players who wanted to see their favorite players for the last time in person, many brought signs to that effect. “I love hockey — and I’m a youth goalie” read one.

The pipeline might be the lasting legacy of the Coyotes in Arizona. If, as rumored, Meruelo retains an option to return a separate expansion franchise to Arizona, he may be able to continue that legacy in the decades to come.

But the team’s players hope to see a similar positive impact on Utah’s youth hockey scene when the team moves up north. Currently, only one Utahn is in the NHL: 37-year-old Trevor Lewis on the Los Angeles Kings. After the game, every Coyotes player interviewed expressed an interest in helping to grow Utah’s youth hockey scene when the team moves.

A mutual appreciation

It was the fans’ show of appreciation for the Coyotes players throughout the night that was most moving.

First of all, the sacrifices people made to be in Tempe were remarkable. I spoke to fans from Ohio, Florida, Massachusetts, and even New York who bought airfare in the last week to make sure they were at the Coyotes’ last NHL game in Arizona.

The game tickets were probably more expensive than the flights. Checked just before game time, the cheapest tickets — not seats, but standing-room-only tickets — were available for $723. Some were season ticket holders, including those who had been supporting the team since they moved to the area in 1996. Some spoke of getting to watch Wayne Gretzky coach the team in the mid-00s.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Arizona Coyotes' Logan Cooley, right, Michael Carcone (53) and Josh Doan arrive on the ice prior to the team's game.

As players participated in pre-game warmups, signs thanking the Coyotes lined the arena’s glass. Some hoped to talk to a favorite player, or get a game-used stick or puck. Others made collages of their own memories of the team, moments that they wanted to give back.

Online, fans did the same. One prominent outlet covering the team asked fans to submit their best photos or memories of the Coyotes on Twitter, and hundreds of fans responded. They’re worth looking through.

And throughout the night, the Coyotes answered the bell. Fans were actually allowed into the arena 15 minutes ahead of the typical time on the final night. For the final two minutes of game action, fans gave the team a standing ovation. After the game ended, it took hours for fans to be ushered out — the organization allowed the time to say goodbye.

The Coyotes’ players also showed a remarkable understanding of the moment. Before the game, they signed some memorabilia as they left the ice, but postgame is where they really shined. They’d autograph a stack of hats, throw them out to the crowd, then go back to staffers to get more to throw. Fans lined up to receive players’ game-worn jerseys; sticks were thrown over the boards to be collected. Most fans who stayed left with not just one piece of memorabilia, but multiple.

“The fans were really unbelievable,” All-Star winger Clayton Keller said. “They’ve supported us through ups and downs and all the noise. They always have our backs.”

These players have won over Coyotes fans’ hearts. A perennially losing franchise, the Coyotes finally are looking up with a number of intriguing youth players getting playing time in the season’s final throes. The team has led the NHL in goals since March.

It’s for that reason that some Coyotes fans say they’ll follow the team in Utah. Warren, the podcaster, says he’s among them. “We suffered to watch these guys,” he said. “It’d be crazy not to go support them wherever they are.” Perhaps the largest sign at Mullett Arena on Wednesday offered the same sentiment: “Stay or leave — we will follow.”

As Wednesday’s funeral showed, the Coyotes have lived out their life in Arizona.

Maybe Salt Lake City can be hockey heaven.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Coyotes fans face the end in Arizona with anger toward Salt Lake City, appreciation of hockey’s impact (2024)


Are coyotes in Arizona? ›

Coyotes are Arizona's most common predator and found throughout the entire state. Though not always seen, their vocalizations, consisting of howls, yelps, and barks, are regularly heard during almost any night spent in the field.

How much are the Phoenix Coyotes worth? ›

The Coyotes are worth $675 million, according to Sportico's own valuations, by far the lowest of the NHL's current 32 teams.

Does Arizona have a coyote problem? ›

Coyotes are generally not a threat to human health and safety. Coyotes are among the most commonly seen wild animals in Arizona. They occur throughout the community wherever substantial open areas remain (mountain preserves, golf courses, larger blocks of undeveloped land, etc.).

Why did coyotes change to Arizona? ›

Both coyotes and scorpions are inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert, and the owners/supporters of the club wanted the team name to be an animal that was representative of the region. On June 27, 2014, the team changed its geographic name to Arizona.

Does Wayne Gretzky still own the Coyotes? ›

Ownership Involvement

However, the Coyotes faced financial difficulties during Gretzky's tenure, and he eventually resigned as head coach in 2009, which coincided with the team losing its ownership stake when it filed for bankruptcy and was subsequently purchased by the NHL.

What is the cheapest NHL team to buy? ›

The Arizona Coyotes ranked as the NHL's least valuable team at $450 million, which is $100 million less than the Florida Panthers, the next closest team. Despite the relatively low valuation, and the fact that the Coyotes now share an arena with Arizona State University, they still saw an increase of 12%.

Who is the richest man in hockey? ›

Estimated net worth: US$250 million

Known as “the Great One”, Canada's Wayne Gretzky has been called the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) by sportswriters, players and the NHL itself.

Does Arizona have wolves or coyotes? ›

Coyotes are common throughout Arizona, and are not a protected species. The Mexican gray wolf is a protected species. Distinguishing a Mexican gray from a coyote can be difficult.

Can I shoot a coyote in my yard in Arizona? ›

State law bans firing a gun, bow/arrow, or crossbow within a quarter-mile of an occupied residence or building while taking wildlife, unless you have the owner's permission.

What part of Arizona do the coyotes play? ›

Gila River Arena. Gila River Arena is a sports and entertainment arena in Glendale, Arizona and is the home of the Arizona Coyotes of the National Hockey League. The building sits on the north side of west Maryland avenue across State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League's (NFL).

What do Arizona Coyotes look like? ›

Coyotes are often mistaken for small to medium sized domestic dogs. They have a long, bushy black-tipped tail, pointed ears and a narrow pointed face. Their fur varies in color, from light brown to grayish. The fur on their belly is usually white.


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