Coyotes continue to fuel hockey’s massive growth in Arizona
GLENDALE, Ariz. – When the Coyotes and second-year pro Shane Doan arrived in Arizona as Winnipeg transplants in 1996, the goal was to introduce, sell and grow the game in a community with limited history and limited exposure to the NHL. Twenty-two years later, Doan is witnessing the fruits of the Coyotes’ labor firsthand.
His son, Josh, a member of the Junior Coyotes organization, was selected by the Kamloops Blazers in the ninth round of the 2017 Western Hockey League Bantam Draft. Local kid Auston Matthews, who grew up idolizing Doan, went first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, and participation in the game has increased dramatically.
In the past year (2016-17 to 2017-18), youth hockey in Arizona grew 11 percent, per statistics released by USA Hockey. Over the past five years, participation has increased 109 percent from 4,125 players to 8,617 players.
For perspective, in 1996, there were 2,184 youth and adult hockey players registered in the state and there were three sheets of ice in the state: AZ Ice Arcadia (then called Tower Plaza), Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe and the Jay Lively Activity Center in Flagstaff.
There are now 10 rinks and 15 sheets of ice in Arizona: Arcadia, Oceanside, two at the Ice Den Chandler, three at the Ice Den Scottsdale, two at AZ Ice Peoria, two at AZ Ice Gilbert, Jay Lively, and seasonal rinks at the Tucson Convention Center, the Prescott Valley Event Center and Gila River Arena.
The numbers are encouraging at every level for hockey supporters. High school hockey in Arizona, which began in 1998 with eight teams, has increased to 32 teams at 21 schools. Girls and women’s hockey has increased to more than 700 participants from 91 in 1996. Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University both have club women’s teams, and ASU launched an NCAA men’s program in 2015-16 that now competes at the Division I level.
“It seems that wherever an NHL team goes, the minor hockey does better and it has done that since we have been here,” Doan said. “For me as a parent, I have seen the Junior Coyotes program go from being somewhat obscure to being capable of being competitive; one of the top 20, 25 programs in the country. That is exciting.”
The Coyotes have been the driving force behind that growth, and their efforts can be seen in everything from their donations to local rinks (more than $300,000) and high schools ($450,000 over the next two years) to the Little Howlers Learn to Play Program and Coyotes Street Hockey School Curriculum. They’ve donated more than 2,100 sets of equipment to youth programs. They’ve shown a commitment to growing the game for girls and women, inline hockey, street hockey, and they have built four DEK rinks in Arizona with $160,000 donations from the team per rink.
“When there’s an NHL team in a market it always helps to grow the game, but having owners that care so much about the community, that makes a night-and-day difference,” Coyotes director of amateur hockey development Matt Shott said.
When Shott began working for the Coyotes his goals were to grow the women’s/girls game, partner with every rink and break the 10,000 barrier for statewide participation.
“We’re 1,400 away from 10,000,” he said. “Just seeing where we rank among the rest of the league in terms of growth is amazing. Even though our numbers aren’t as big as the East Coast teams, they’re seeing 1 percent growth or losing kids. We’re still seeing this huge growth.”
There is still work to be done, Shott said. The Coyotes are working with local schools to at least promote their high school club teams, and the hope is that the Arizona Interscholastic Association will one day adopt hockey as a varsity sport. There is also a dearth of available rinks for the growing sport. Ice time is hard to come by in the Valley and Tucson does not have a year-round rink, which forces many of its players to drive to the Valley to compete. Flagstaff only has one rink and there are no permanent rinks in other cities.
To continue to grow, Arizona will need more rinks and a continued commitment from the Coyotes to create exposure and participation opportunities on the ice and off of it.
“It’s pure roll-up-your-sleeves hustle,” Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “I want every kid in this state to be exposed to hockey and to have the opportunity to play at some level. These numbers are great but I want to double them. I want to see the same kind of growth year of over year and if we’re not, I’m upset because we’re not doing our jobs.
Cohen acknowledged the challenges the Coyotes face with more a limited budget than most NHL teams.
“We’re not the Yankees or the Rangers so we have to be as nimble as we can and we have to be as smart with every decision we’re making,” he said. “If one of our core goals is to grow youth hockey, which it is, how do we do that in an efficient and effective manner? It’s not the easiest thing to just run around and build rinks but getting sticks and pucks in kids’ hands is important.
“It’s my vision and directive to see this as a major priority so when we’re making allocation decisions, this is a very high priority with the resources we do have. I think we’ve turned a corner and in everything we do, we’re trying to create a positive impact, whether it be with community partners, corporate partners, our fan base, politicians or elsewhere. It’s our responsibility to grow our game of hockey and promote youth fitness and it’s something we take great pride in doing.”
ARIZONA HOCKEY PARTICIPATION
Ranking among markets with NHL teams
Total registration growth in past year: No. 3
Total registration growth in past 5 years: No. 1
Total women’s registration growth in past year: No. 2
Total women’s registration growth in past 5 years: No. 1
Hockey Participation Growth in Arizona
Growth over past year: 11 percent
Growth over past 5 years: 109 percent
Youth growth over past year: 17 percent
Youth growth over past 5 years: 88 percent
Girls growth over past year: 31 percent
Girls growth over past 5 years: 152 percent
Hockey Participation in Tucson
Growth over past year: 296 percent
Growth in registered female players: 150 percent
Growth in number of travel teams: 200 percent
Growth in U8 participation: 433 percent