DAN BICKLEY

Tempe special election will likely determine future of Coyotes in Arizona

May 3, 2023, 3:54 PM | Updated: May 4, 2023, 7:15 am

The next two weeks are critical to the Phoenix Suns’ championship hopes and the respective futures of general manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams.

They are even more important for the Coyotes, a snakebit franchise that has never had a fair shot in Arizona. Until now.

On May 16, a special election will conclude in Tempe, where voters must decide if they’d like to replace a landfill with a hockey arena and entertainment district. In the process, they will likely determine the future of professional hockey in the desert.

If things go well, the Coyotes will have a bold new future. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the franchise will stay in Arizona forever, and there’s no reason to doubt his loyalty. But if the project fails, the well of patience likely runs dry.

A handful of former Tempe mayors have endorsed the project. Former Coyotes captain Shane Doan has placed his good name on the blueprint.

Me? I’m biased. I have recently been to Los Angeles, where Kings fans spilled into the streets, a city that staged three playoff games with three different teams in the span of 24 hours. I have just returned from Denver, where the Avalanche are more popular than the Nuggets. I have seen the effects of a thriving hockey team in the great American West.

We can be just like them.

It happened before. The Coyotes once played in downtown Phoenix, and they were even better than relevant. They were part of our daily conversation. But their arena was just like their current temporary home: too small for NHL standards.

Back then, it was like a foot too big for its shoe. It was a professional hockey rink jammed inside a cozy basketball arena, resulting in many sections of fans who could not see the goalie underneath them.

This project would secure our status as a Major League sports town. The Valley is part of an exclusive group, a region that features all four major professional sports franchises. I don’t want to lose that designation, and it would make Doan feel like he sacrificed his entire career for nothing. Besides, there are documented psychological effects on markets abandoned by one of their pro teams. Kevin Durant — former Supersonics superstar — could tell you all about it.

“From my vantage point, this is truly a win-win-win for everybody,” Doan said. “As my home, I want Arizona to have a hockey team that can grow in the Valley. The impact of turning a landfill into something special is also a good thing. And the fact that it’s being paid for privately happens to be very true. Those are the things that make me want to scream because the Coyotes are paying for it all.

“At the same time, I understand the apprehension because of the reputation and history that has unfolded with the Coyotes over the past 15 years. But I just want this organization to finally get a serious foothold in the Valley, and not just feel like we’re hanging on by our fingernails.”

The Coyotes have been chasing their financial tail for decades. In Glendale, they could never get ahead of their expenses. Which means they couldn’t buy or keep really good hockey players. As a result, they have never been allowed to flourish in Arizona.

Understand this: the magic of the NHL lies in the postseason, a time when the sport turns mythical and magical and grabs you by the neck. The Coyotes have staged only 17 home playoff games since 2000. They’ve won only five of them. They’ve made only one extended playoff run in 26 years.

Those who attended home games during the 2012 Western Conference Finals will never forget the incredible juxtaposition of walking from the parking lot in triple-digit temperatures and descending into a playoff icebox. Alas, we have only staged four hockey games in the month of May since the team arrived in 1996.

The vicious cycle has to stop. Or the Coyotes will have to leave just as they seem to be turning a competitive corner. Nobody wants the latter. Not if you understand the power a good sports franchise can have on the community.

I’ve heard critics say there are better options for the city of Tempe. But what could bring more joy to the state of Arizona than an NHL team competing for a Stanley Cup when the air conditioning alone is worth the price of admission?

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6–10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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