ARIZONA COYOTES

Party or wake? Coyotes’ tenure in Arizona down to final game before move to Utah

Apr 17, 2024, 11:33 AM | Updated: 11:34 am

Arizona Coyotes right wing Clayton Keller...

Arizona Coyotes right wing Clayton Keller (9) controls the puck in front of New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (91) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

(AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Coyotes dubbed Mullett Arena “The Party Barn” for its raucous, closed-quarters atmosphere. The NHL’s smallest arena ended up being one of the franchise’s biggest problems and will be the site of one final party that will be more like a wake before a move to Utah.

The Coyotes’ game against Edmonton on Wednesday night will likely mark the end of an era, a 28-year run of ups and downs in the desert culminating in an anticipated move to Utah that will take the hopes of fans across Arizona with it.

“It’s devastating,” said Ryan Travis, a Coyotes season-ticket holder since 2001. “It’s more than a game to me. My family was raised around them, my kids play hockey because of them and so many memories, it’s hard to fathom them not being here.”

The Coyotes’ mantra through numerous ownership changes, three arenas and constant relocation rumors was that the franchise was here to stay.

Now it’s leaving.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo will sell the team’s hockey operations to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith shortly after Arizona’s season finale. Smith has pushed to have an NHL team in Salt Lake City and will have a ready-made franchise in pocket with the purchase of the Coyotes.

Meruelo had stiff-armed numerous bids to buy the franchise since he took ownership in 2019, insisting he would find a way to make it work in Arizona despite a litany of obstacles.

The billionaire developer finally ran out of cards to play when the NHL and the players association pushed back on plans to continue playing at 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, which was built for the Arizona State University hockey team, while he worked to secure a permanent home. Meruelo and the Coyotes have a line on a tract of land for a multibillion-dollar project in north Phoenix that would include a new arena, but delays pushed the auction for it into June.

With no guarantees of building a new arena, Meruelo opted to sell the Coyotes’ hockey operations for $1.2 billion — $200 million of which will be distributed to NHL owners as a relocation fee — so the players wouldn’t be stuck playing at the not-up-to-NHL-standards Mullett.

The Coyotes’ business operations will keep pushing forward as they try to secure and develop the Phoenix land, which, if completed in five years, will give Meruelo’s group an opportunity to start an expansion franchise.

A small flicker of light at the end of the tunnel for Coyotes fans, but the reality is there will be no hockey team in Arizona for at least the next several years.

“The resounding thing I’ve heard from people I’ve talked to is the false sense of hope,” said Jennifer DelPrincipe, whose family had season tickets before the Coyotes moved from Glendale, Arizona, to play across the metro area at the Mullett. “The message to season-ticket holders was always ‘hockey the hard way,’ like they were going to stay in the desert. I think that’s the slap in the face to everyone who feels we were misled and then all of a sudden it just hit the fan like 0 to 1,000.”

Turmoil seemed to follow the Coyotes everywhere they went after relocating from Winnipeg in 1996.

The team began its tenure here sharing a downtown Phoenix arena with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns before moving to Glendale in 2003. The Coyotes had a multimillion-dollar, long-term lease agreement with Glendale, but the city backed out of the deal in 2015.

The franchise reached a deal to play at Arizona State’s arena until it could find a permanent home and seemed to have found a landing spot near downtown Tempe. Voters last year then resoundingly shot down a referendum for an entertainment district that would include a new arena.

Ownership issues have hounded the franchise through every stop.

A group that included developer Steve Ellman and hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky ran into financial difficulties and sold the team to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes in 2005. Moyes filed for bankruptcy in 2009, prompting the NHL to operate the franchise for the next four years. The franchise changed hands with three more ownership groups after that, capped with Meruelo buying controlling interest from hedge fund manager Andrew Barroway five years ago.

“Arizona sports fans, it’s never easy,” Travis said. “You always get the light at the end of the tunnel, hope I guess that better days are ahead. Just when things were looking up, the team is turning around, it got pulled from under us. It’s tiring.”

The franchise tried to push through distractions on the ice, with little success.

The Coyotes made an improbable run to the 2012 Western Conference Finals, but didn’t reach the postseason again until the 2020 pandemic bubble. Being under the NHL’s control limited the franchise’s resources and even when they tried to make big-splash trades or signings, it rarely worked out. Attendance was among the worst in the league, even before the move to Mullett.

Realizing stopgap measures weren’t working, general manager Bill Armstrong opted for a total rebuild three years ago, trading away many of the team’s veteran players to accrue a large mass of draft picks.

With skilled players like Clayton Keller, Logan Cooley and Dylan Guenther making up their core, the Coyotes have incrementally improved, pointing to what’s expected to be a better future for the franchise.

Now that future will be in Utah.

“I’m in kind of a limbo,” DelPrincipe said. “I don’t want to be on that bandwagon because that bandwagon has been deceitful, but we will follow our friends and favorite players wherever they go until we land hockey again, then see what the ownership looks like.”

Right now, all Coyotes fans see is their favorite team and players heading out of Arizona.

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