The Arizona Coyotes won’t quit. They’re the NHL equivalent of a 1980s horror movie monster, snapping back into consciousness after being electrocuted for the 10th time, shambling along in defiance of its assumed mortality while everyone runs away screaming.
Consider, if you will, their history:
The Coyotes have changed owners several times.
They’ve gone bankrupt, and as a result were owned by the NHL for a time.
They found the one thing at which Wayne Gretzky wasn’t great: coaching.
They almost relocated to Hamilton, Ontario, and Seattle, among other destinations.
They’ve missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons, interrupted only by a brief appearance in the 24-team pandemic postseason of 2020.
They were evicted from their arena in Glendale only to move into a 5,000-seat college hockey arena on the campus of Arizona State for potentially four seasons.
It’s called Mullett Arena. You can’t make this stuff up.
On Tuesday, the “monster” received its latest death blow: Voters in Tempe emphatically rejected a ballot initiative for a $2.1 billion entertainment district that would have included a new Coyotes arena. It was a vote that crushed fans’ hopes and gutted the team’s management.
“There’s no Plan B at this point,” one team source said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement: “The NHL is terribly disappointed by the results of the public referenda regarding the Coyotes’ arena project in Tempe. We are going to review with the Coyotes what the options might be going forward.”
Notice what Bettman didn’t say there: Anything that resembled his emphatic past support of the franchise remaining in Arizona. Like two years ago, when the Coyotes’ financial disputes with Glendale were being publicly discussed and he said, “The Coyotes aren’t going anywhere.”
Perhaps it’s because without an arena or a Plan B, they are finally going somewhere else.
The Coyotes thought they were winning this vote. Internally, there were estimates of a 10-point advantage in the polling. The team had booked president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez to do rounds of media on Wednesday in anticipation of a victory lap. Instead, he went radio silent when the initiative was defeated.
The team thought it had made its case, from the private funding to the benefits of the project to the community. It had endorsements from politicians past and present, all noting that this unusable landfill was going to be put to good use.
I don’t know if it was overconfidence or hubris, but the Coyotes clearly miscalculated on some aspects of the vote.
The opposition was better funded and controlled the messaging early. A lot of what was being said about the bid was misinformation about taxes, public funding and owner Alex Meruelo’s messy breakup with Glendale. The Coyotes spent less, were playing catch-up on messaging and couldn’t reframe the argument for enough voters. They also couldn’t get out the vote. One factor I heard: Some difficulties in their relationships with local labor unions that would have worked on building the entertainment district. As is often the case in local elections, they could have helped swing that vote.
Why didn’t the Coyotes fans show up to support the initiative?
I think they would have if this wasn’t a city ballot initiative. If it was a Maricopa County ballot measure, that brings in the majority of the Coyotes’ fan base in places like Scottsdale. Asking why hockey fans in Tempe didn’t turn out for the arena vote is paradoxical. The new arena was intended to create new fans. How could one expect those fans to vote for that arena before they themselves are created?
In the wake of the vote, there was immediate speculation about where the Coyotes might relocate. But as I first reported on Wednesday, the team will spend the 2023-24 season in Mullett Arena.
That makes a lot of sense. Yes, it’s true that teams can relocate rather quickly. The Atlanta Thrashers’ relocation was approved in mid-May in 2011 and their sale to True North to become the Winnipeg Jets was announced on May 31. But outside of perhaps Quebec, there’s no plug-and-play relocation destination for the Coyotes. The last thing the NHL wants to do is botch the entry into a new market due to a hasty move.
So if the Coyotes are relocating, the process will be more meticulous, including finding the right new owner — it’s my understanding that Meruelo won’t own the team outside of Arizona.
And finding the right city. As you can see here, there are plenty of options:
When the arena vote failed, attention immediately turned to Houston as a potential new home. The Coyotes were previously linked to the city in 2021, when Forbes reported that they were “for sale again with idea of buyer eventually moving team to a new arena in Houston.” Bettman said at the time that report was “completely false.”
Houston is the fourth-most populous city in the U.S., and the Toyota Center is an NHL-ready building. Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta controls that building, and he said in 2017 that he would “put an NHL team here tomorrow” if he could. In 2018, Boston Bruins owner and board of governors chairman Jeremy Jacobs said in a radio interview that, “Clearly the one area that is missing is Houston because that’s a great city.”
Bettman told The Associated Press in 2019 that “if there were ever to be a team there, unless there’s a new arena, Mr. Fertitta would control the entry point.” It’s been reported by Sportsnet that the number the NHL had in mind for the acquisition of an NHL franchise wasn’t the number that Fertitta had in mind. Which could be a problem.
ESPN’s John Buccigross told ABC 13 in Houston that he expects the city to have a team in the next decade.
“It’s likely over in Arizona unless somebody steps up big time. Houston’s right there at the very top of the list,” he said. “That would be a very creative, attractive place for the NHL. Plus, the league is trying to be more diverse and look more like America. So that’s another secret sauce of Houston: it gives you that other flavor.”
Frankly, it would be a surprise if the NHL didn’t leverage the fertile Houston market for an expansion fee rather than for a relocation. But without question, it’s the best option on the board.
Salt Lake City
Like Fertitta in Houston, 45-year-old Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith also runs the Delta Center, the team’s arena. He recently told a fan on Twitter that plans to bring an NHL team to Salt Lake City were “in motion” and he’s met with Bettman.
Last summer, Smith added private equity firm Arctos Sports Partners as a minority investor in Smith Entertainment Group with the expressed intent to bring another pro sports team to the city. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Arctos was the private equity investor permitted by the NHL under a Dec. 2021 change in league bylaws. Arctos Sports Partners closed investments in the Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning the following month.
The Delta Center was built in 1991. It’s not exactly an ideal hockey arena, but can seat around 14,000 fans for the sport. The real appeal for the NHL in Salt Lake City is what comes next. The city is bidding on the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympics, and there’s been speculation that a new arena could accompany either bid.
This one to watch, for sure. One request: In honor of the classic 1990s indie film, they must call the team SLC Puck.
Kansas City, Missouri
There’s nothing the NHL likes more than a very famous person weighing in positively about the league. You had Deadpool and Snoop Dogg circling ownership of the Ottawa Senators. Now you’ve got no less a celebrity than Patrick Mahomes tweeting about how the “KC Coyotes has a nice ring to it!” and encouraging the team to move to T-Mobile Center. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas doubled down on the sentiment.
The Kansas City arena has been open since 2007. It’s operated by NHL ally Anschutz Entertainment Group and can seat well over 17,000 fans for hockey.
The problem, as always, has been finding local ownership willing to acquire an NHL team. A relocation, rather than paying an elephantine expansion fee, would be the best path. And goodness, wouldn’t that rivalry with St. Louis be something else?
Sac Town is worth mentioning here for two seasons. First, it’s a top-20 TV market nationally, in a state already populated by three NHL teams. Second, it has Vivek Ranadive. The Sacramento Kings owner is hotly pursuing ownership of the Ottawa Senators. If that falls short, could he turn to the Coyotes?
It would require some work on Golden 1 Center, where the Kings play, to make it hockey-friendly.
I’m not sure I could show my face in the ESPN campus café if I didn’t at least address the Whale in the room.
Hartford lost its NHL team in 1997 to Raleigh, which still honors the legacy of the Whalers (and an iconic logo’s revenue potential) by wearing those jerseys every season for at least one home game. Connecticut’s capital city has made inquiries over the years to Bettman and to other teams about the NHL’s return to Hartford. In 2017, Hartford’s mayor and Connecticut’s governor sent a letter to the New York Islanders about having the team move north.
There are several issues with Hartford as an NHL destination. There would need to be a new arena. While it’s a market rich with hockey fans, it’s also saturated with teams — three in the New York Metro area and the behemoth that are the Boston Bruins, whose existence will always reduce Whalers 2.0 to second-tier status. But as we’ll see in our next candidate, the NHL isn’t about reinforcing the fans it already has when it comes to expansion and relocation.
One of the true joys of Gary Bettman news conferences over the past 20 years has been hearing the divine accent of one the French-Canadian journalists begin to ask the inevitable question about when the NHL will ever bring a team back to Quebec City.
Usually, his answer would include something about the NHL not being in an expansion mode … until it was in one back in 2016. Quebecor made a bid to revive the Quebec Nordiques at Videotron Centre, which seats over 18,000 fans. The NHL denied it, and awarded only one expansion franchise to Las Vegas. Quebec was also on the outside when Seattle was granted the Kraken.
Bettman was asked about Quebec City again in January. “I know there’s been constant speculation about that. We’re not in an expansion mode. If we decide to participate or have the possibility of expansion we’ll let the people of Quebec City know. Those who might want to own a team,” he said, adding that Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson would not block a second team in the Canadian province.
The problem for Quebec City — besides not being a natural fit within the NHL’s current alignment, lest they play in the Central Division — is that that the league is all about expanding its fan base. A return to Quebec would no doubt be financially beneficial based on the volume of interest. But it would cater to fans that already consume hockey rather than reaching new audiences in a place like Houston. There’s a reason the NHL opted for Vegas and Seattle. Frankly, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the right calls.
Influential NHL agent Allan Walsh made the case in the wake of the Coyotes vote that “there is no better place to relocate a team other than Ontario.”
A second NHL team in Toronto has always made sense to me. In fact, I’ve argued it should be a Western Conference team — having both conferences come through the “Centre of the Hockey Universe” with frequency.
“It would immediately be among the top 3 revenue teams in the League,” Walsh wrote. “We have a 50/50 salary cap and the League has a moral obligation to players to maximize Hockey-Related Revenues. A 2nd team in Ontario would be a revenue generating monster. If the NHL is willing to get rid of the cap, it can keep or place franchises wherever it wants.”
OK, that turned into a luxury tax argument in the end, but you catch his point: Toronto could support a second team. And with the market turning heel on the Maple Leafs (again), there’s probably a lane open for an alternative. I will reiterate my stance: If a team enters the market as competition for that Original Six franchise, they must be called the Rakes or the Blowers, a.k.a. the sworn enemies of the Leafs.
But the idea that the NHL would ever, ever allow for a relocation fee vs. an expansion free from a second Toronto owner is about a far-fetched as the Leafs winning two playoff rounds.
One of the Hail Marys to keep the Coyotes in Arizona is that new Phoenix Suns owner and noted Nikola Jokic antagonist Mat Ishbia would welcome the franchise to share the Footprint Center, aka America West Arena, aka the place the Coyotes originally played after relocating from Winnipeg.
Yeah, about that: It’s not built for hockey. There would be about 4,500 obstructed view seats behind one of the nets that offer the kind of rink-reduced views not seen since the halcyon days of the Islanders at Barclays Center.
The arena just had a renovation that totaled over $230 million. It didn’t include anything that would have made it more hockey-friendly, despite having an NHL team down the road whose arena situation was tenuous at best. They don’t want to split sponsorship money or naming rights or anything else with an NHL tenant. Like most HGTV shows, the renovation tells the story.
Back to Glendale, Arizona
That’s not even mentioning Atlanta (third time’s a charm!), Portland, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, all of whom had been mentioned as being on the NHL’s radar.
While we were all arguing about where the Coyotes should relocate, a hand shot up through the dirt on the team’s grave.
Goonies never say die pic.twitter.com/xtlRwv8rYQ
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 18, 2023
Gutierrez sent a letter to the team’s fans confirming they’d play at Mullett next season. But in addition, he said: “We remain committed to Arizona and have already started re-engaging with local officials and sites to solidify a new permanent home in the Valley.”
So maybe the Coyotes will once again have stared in the abyss of NHL relocation and walked back from it. On to the next unused parcel of land. On to the next city council and voter block to be convince.
Color me skeptical. This one felt different, like the end of something. Like they took their last, best shot and missed the net high and wide. I respect the defiant tone, which might sell a few more Kachina jerseys before next season. But I sort of think the Coyotes’ run has finally gone the distance.
Don’t misread me: I’m not OK with Arizona no longer having the NHL. Not with a media market that large. Not with the intense dedication of the fans who have followed the Coyotes through all of this. Not with the burgeoning local hockey programs that could produce the next Auston Matthews, currently pressing his face against the glass to watch Clayton Keller skate.
But maybe the NHL team in Arizona can’t be the Coyotes anymore. Maybe the voters are telling us that the baggage the Coyotes dragged with them from Glendale was too much to ignore. Maybe the market needs a reset and a clean slate.
As we said earlier, the franchise has been through a lot. Maybe too much. Maybe they need to break from it too.
But the important thing is that the end of the Coyotes is not the end of hockey in Arizona, nor should it be.
Like any great 1980s horror movie, there’s always a sequel.
Where should the Arizona Coyotes franchise play next?