The future of ice in the desert

The Phoenix Coyotes were swept 4–0 and played their last game of the season last night. More importantly, that may be the last game that they ever play in Phoenix. Rumours about a move to Winnipeg — giving all those Jets jerseys a new purpose in life — or a move to somewhere in Quebec where the population may be small but the hunger for hockey is limitless have begun.

Over fall reading days in November my dad, my sister and I went to Phoenix to take in the sprawl, the desert and some sports. We attended a game between the Coyotes and the Blues and got rink side seats for what would have bought us nosebleeds in Calgary. Because we were in the deluxe zone we got free food and drinks in a special area with a view of the tunnels to and from the dressing rooms – which was pretty neat and you never get to experience that anywhere else.

The team played well and showed that they had talent. Making the playoffs was never really a doubt for the Coyotes and results are not their problem. The stadium and the Coyotes organization felt desperate like the new kid at school trying too hard to befriend the cool kids. They gave us free t-shirts when we entered and went out of their way to make sure that all of our needs were met. You could feel the team’s financial woes in the air and this only became clearer when we discovered the free food.

The game was a good time and despite hearing a few audience members complain about the cold temperatures in the stadium — which resulted in smug jokes on the part of us Canadians — there is an appetite for sports and for hockey in Phoenix. The city is home to a basketball team, a football team, a baseball team and for the time being a hockey team. All of these teams have newly built and pristine stadiums. The baseball stadium and the shiny new basketball stadium are located in downtown Phoenix right near transit and a cultural district.

The football stadium and the hockey stadium are located in the suburb of Glendale, which is home to antique shopping and a few run down looking neighbourhoods but not much else. It was a long drive, especially in game day traffic for us to get down to Glendale from the suburb our hotel was in on the other side of Phoenix. Built to go with the two stadiums is an entertainment area with shops, restaurants, bars and a movie theater. It feels like a true paradise in the desert. There is a big square right across from the entrance to the hockey arena that is like a combination between Las Vegas and Times Square. One of the big billboards displays the John Lennon quote, “Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”

This was a fun place to be but it felt a lot different when we went to the hockey game than at the football game. For the football game the parking lot is packed with tailgaters hours ahead of time and the crowd is enormous and excited. The hockey game didn’t draw the same crowd or kind of enthusiasm.

Ultimately, the problem was building a brand new stadium in a city that already had three. Tax payers are only willing to put up so much money for stadiums. The even bigger problem was moving from downtown Phoenix where the team had a dedicated fan base built on transit and short commutes. The move to the suburbs alienated the Coyote’s core fan base who weren’t willing to endure long drives to see the team at a stadium they didn’t want in the first place.

This paradise they were trying to build in the desert wasn’t what the fans had in mind. It was artificial, commercial and hard to get to. The team tried their hardest to build a new fan base and successful teams could learn a lot from what they did to lure fans — people love free t-shirts and reasonably priced food — but it likely wasn’t enough.