Coyotes’ community impact extends well beyond ice

Apr 7, 2018, 7:01 AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Financial utilitarians often take a cynical view of pro sports franchises, reasoning that they give far less to a community than they take with the cost of their arenas, their tickets, their parking and their paraphernalia.

It’s an important view that merits discussion when weighing the pro sports balance sheet, but it ignores the more esoteric product that teams bring in the form of excitement, heartbreak and civic pride.

It ignores the joy that comes when a player flips a puck or stick into the stands, or when Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway runs through the concourses during intermissions to hand out autographed bobbleheads and pucks so he can interact with fans.

More importantly, it ignores the many ways in which teams impact their community through charitable efforts and civic engagement.

The Coyotes will play their final home game against the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday at Gila River Arena. While they won’t return to the ice until training camp, their impact on the greater Phoenix and Arizona communities is a year-round affair.

“We don’t just want to be a source of entertainment as a sport, we want to be an organization that also helps to make our community better and reaches out to make our neighbors part of our hockey family,” said Olivia Matos, the Executive Director of the Arizona Coyotes Foundation and the Director of Community Relations. “It is important for our organization and players that we set an example for younger generations to know that sports and athletes can make a difference beyond the game.”

Last year, Matos said the Coyotes invested $1.2 million in Arizona between their community and youth hockey programs. It’s a big number, but it’s just a number. It doesn’t capture the human impact.

Arizona Sports reached out to a handful of people affected by the Coyotes’ myriad community efforts to put faces on, give voices to and provide perspective on the work the franchise is doing.


Sophia Isler was born in October 2015. A day before she turned three months old, she started having seizures. She was diagnosed with congenital CMV, a virus that can also result in hearing loss, vision challenges, lack of coordination and weakness. A snapshot MRI also revealed extensive brain damage.

Sophia has cortical visual impairment so she doesn’t see the way humans typically do. She has sleeping challenges, asthma, spastic cerebral palsy and she take seven medications per day to control the seizures.

She had a congenital cataract removed from her left eye (she wears a contact lens) at three months and will have another removed soon from her right eye. She also has displaced hips because her sockets never formed correctly so she will need bilateral hip surgery.

“If you were to ever meet her she is the most feisty, amazing, beautiful little girl,” said her mom, Bianca Isler. “She has taught us patience and how to fight and speak for her because she is non-verbal.”

Bianca created a Facebook page entitled: Sophia’s Life Journey. The Islers have been working with Southwest Human Development (SHD) since Sophia was six months old. The organization focuses on early childhood development including services, support and the building of devices for children with disabilities.

SHD spokesperson Ryan Narramore said the Coyotes have donated more than $100,000 in the past two years. They have also donated time at the organization’s annual walk and they work with staff members at the SHD Adapt Shop to build equipment for the kids.

“Without the support of the Arizona Coyotes our services for children with disabilities would struggle,” Narramore said. “Those services include our children’s developmental center (assessments, diagnoses and treatments), Adapt Shop, feeding programs, our disabilities inclusion program and more.”

A chair built from the Adapt Shop has allowed Sophia to be more independent and socialize with her peer group.

“The amount of attention they give to each and every child when they visit is amazing. They make them feel loved and wanted,” Bianca said of the Coyotes. “It’s not just the corporation. The fact that the players are so involved, it means a lot to us and it’s amazing when you see the children’s faces when the mascot or the players come.

“They’re not only engaged, you can tell they actually care about these children. There are certain organizations that just write a check and move on and they feel good about it, but the Coyotes actually wanted to be invested with time for these children. I’ve been involved as a special needs mom in multiple organizations but with Southwest Human Development and the Coyotes, I’ve never seen anything like it.”


The Coyotes engage in a variety of programs with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, including an annual telethon, helping fund the recently opened Center for Cancer and Blood Disorder (CCBD) and holiday visits. Their lifetime giving to the hospital exceeds $550,000.

Perhaps the most popular program, however, is the animal-assisted therapy where dogs clad in some form of Coyotes garb visit children battling cancer or other illnesses.

“They love when those dogs come in,” said Alyssa Snow, the special events coordinator for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation. “They’ll put notes on their doors saying ‘please make sure Rufus stops by,’ or whoever their favorite dog is.”

The love of canines comes in all forms.

“Last year when we were prepping for the telethon, Howler and the Paw Patrol visited the CCBD clinic to say ‘hi’ while kids were getting chemo[therapy],” Snow said. “One of the girls fell in love with them and we invited the whole family to a game the day of the telethon. Later, I saw her at another game and she said ‘we became hockey fans because of that visit.’ They fell in love with the team and the little girl was totally obsessed with Howler!”


Rebecca Brinkman is in her 11th year teaching second grade at Starlight Elementary School in Phoenix. She found out about the Coyotes Reading Program three years ago and has signed up every year since.

“Literacy is a big concern at our school,” she said. “Our goal is to get kids reading proficiently by the end of their grade levels.”

In the program that includes visits by the staff, Howler and select players, kids get prizes when they achieve their goals, such as Coyotes backpacks, water bottles, folders, t-shirts and Papa John’s coupons. If a child goes above and beyond, the Coyotes offer tickets to games.

“Every month they give awards to the top class and I’ll be honest, I’m really competitive and I have bred my kids to be the same way,” Brinkman said, laughing. “We actually won the grand prize last year which was a trip to the stadium to get a tour and have a pizza party.”

One student named Fabricio arrived in Brinkman’s classroom last school year reading 15 words a minute. He had to be at 96 by the end of the year and he missed the goal by about 11 words.

“I got him again this year and he was still below grade level. He had to be at 119 and he just read 135 for me the other day,” Brinkman said. “He came in on the first day and said ‘I hate to read, I don’t like school’ and now it’s the opposite. He doesn’t want to leave my classroom and it’s going to be really hard to let him go.

“The Coyotes program was a big push and reason for that. They are a part of the community and they are role models and kids look up to those type of figures. I tell the kids ‘they’re not looking at your reading logs every night but they know about the program so when you go home at night and hold yourself accountable, you’re making the community proud and not letting them down.'”


The focus of Coyotes Future Goals is teaching STEM through the sport of hockey. The Washington D.C. based EVERFI creates the software for the program, which is available to any school in Arizona (grades 4-8) at no cost, thanks to the support of the Coyotes.

The Coyotes players conduct school visits with one or two players joining an emcee to talk with students, hold career panels, discuss how they use science and math in hockey and how they achieved their life goals.

Twice a year the team invites students to an open practice where they talk to a wide range of staff members to get a sense of the myriad professions open to them. Last fall, about 1,200 kids attended and each walked away with a voucher to attend a game.

“A lot of these kids have never seen or played hockey. It opens their eyes to a different perspective,” spokesperson Olivia Twiddy said. “We’ve been doing it for four-plus years and over 55,000 students have participated.”


DHD was founded by a group of people who worked at the grassroots level to ensure the future of the Coyotes in Glendale back in 2013 when the NHL was selling the team to a group of investors.

The thrust of the program is to introduce more kids to the sport of hockey through clinics. DHD typically works in disadvantaged areas including Bonsall Park in Glendale, where they helped renovate a street-hockey rink and transform the park’s playground.

“It’s a park that is frequented by homeless families and singles,” DHD secretary Bea Wyatt said. “There used to be a great deal of drug activity in the park.

“Around Easter time, there were some children playing and we invited them to join us. They are homeless. They spend the night in shelters but they live most of the day in the park. One little girl didn’t have shoes on her feet so we contacted one of our people and asked her to stop by Walmart to buy her shoes and socks.

“Many of the neighborhoods relied on school lunches during the week and on the weekend there is a lot of food insecurity so after the sessions we would feed the kids.”

Wyatt said DHD could not do its work — any of it — without the support of the Coyotes.

“None of that could happen without the Coyotes first teaching us how to do what we do, and then financially supporting us to do what we do,” said Wyatt, who works closely with Coyotes Director of Amateur Hockey Development Matt Shott. “They came out to our first clinic and showed us how they did it. The next time we ran it, they watched us and guided us.”

Coyotes COO, General Counsel and Alternate Governor Ahron Cohen understands that rumors will persist about the Coyotes’ long-term viability in Arizona until they secure a new arena and achieve financial stability.

“We’ve been here for 21 years and we’ve obviously had a lot of ups and downs, but we’re not going to get where we want to go unless we’re a part of the fabric of this community,” Cohen said.

“We take great pride in our engagement with the community and we want to see the results pay off for years to come. Seeing the impact we have, whether it’s opening new DEK hockey rinks, contributing to STEM programs or doing telethons at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, is gratifying. That commitment is really ingrained in our mission statement for our entire company. We have made a long-term commitment to Arizona. We want to make this a better place to live.”

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Coyotes’ community impact extends well beyond ice