GLENDALE, Ariz. — The big top tent that housed the Coyotes Faceoff Luncheon on Thursday at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess had all the makings of a Coyotes coming out party.
The newly installed hockey operations triumvirate of Gary Drummond, John Chayka and Dave Tippet took the stage with president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc for a quick Q&A. Coyotes majority owner Andrew Barroway arrived fashionably late — at the very moment that LeBlanc was introducing him. And just as the 400 or so guests had been seated at the 40 tables that filled the massive space, event emcee Todd Walsh introduced each of the Coyotes players along with an accompanying Luke Air Force base serviceman, both of whom emerged from behind a tent wall on the arm of a Paw Patrol member.
The festive event came one day after Scottsdale product Auston Matthews’ sizzling NHL debut, one day before the AHL’s Roadrunners were set to debut and two days before Coyotes 2.0 was set to launch its 20th season in the Valley with five rookies and four sophomores on its 23-man roster.
If timing is everything, the Coyotes just may be ready to stamp their indelible mark on Arizona.
“I’m so lucky that I didn’t have to go through all the stress that some of the guys here went through in the past with unstable ownership and talk of relocation,” fourth-year defenseman Connor Murphy said. “It’s big for guys to have that comfort of knowing they can call Arizona home, and it’s nice to have all the players in place that make it possible to be a successful team. It just allows us to focus on performing and putting wins together.”
Matthews’ four-goal NHL debut is a sample of the growth of youth hockey in the state that will augment the state’s profile and the team’s base of season ticket holders, but over the next three years, the Coyotes’ budding crop of prospects should reach full flower. The construction of a new arena should be well under way and the powers that have carried the Pacific Division banner for much of the past decade — San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles — should be in decline as their stars age.
There is opportunity like never before for the Coyotes to seize the day, and there are signs that such a move is already underway with a flurry of offseason moves that restocked the defensive cupboard and brought in a couple of key free agents.
“It’s amazing what (General Manager) John Chayka has accomplished in such a short tenure. When you look at the hockey side, we are setting ourselves up for a very exciting future,” LeBlanc said. “But on the business side of things, we’re equally excited. What we’re doing with the impending arena announcement and getting to the right side of the Valley; it’s everything we need to succeed.”
Progress may not be felt in the standings this season. There is hard labor ahead. More corporate sponsors are needed, more converts are needed in the seats and there will be setbacks along the way, but as the Coyotes open the 2016-17 season against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at Gila River Arena, there is a different conversation dominating the discussion from years past.
“Hockey is growing in mind-share in the Valley so our biggest job now is to get people excited about this team,” LeBlanc said. “With everything that is happening, it’s all trending in the right direction. I think this is going to be a watershed year for us.”
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